Breaking the Golden Record

On being vulnerable and sharing unfinished work in public

If you had to send a representation of yourself out to an unknown audience, what would you say? What would you want them to see? What story would you tell? That’s what Carl Sagan had to figure out when NASA asked him to assemble images, greetings, and music to be shared with an alien audience and would be sent out with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

The Golden Record was the result, a literally golden disc encased in protective aluminum with painstakingly arranged and chosen pieces of music, greetings in 55 languages from earth’s people, 155 images, and a collection of nature sounds. This disc, if it ever found its way to alien life, was our signal to them, a tiny beacon of our existence and what we felt told a meaningful story about humanity and our tiny, blue planet.

Until this spring, I think I looked at everything I posted publicly as a Golden Record. I had a childhood before the internet existed, and a father who foresaw the future of data we presently face, he instilled in me the importance of privacy. I remember him asking me, “If you want to be sure something won’t be shared what would you do?” My child mind imaged destruction, “Burn it?” He looked at me and said, “No. Don’t write it down, don’t say it.” Looking back, he was right. I’m sure, like everyone, I’ve written and said things that I wouldn’t necessarily want shared with the world. But I’ve been more cautious than many I know, and I’ve been extremely cautious about sharing anything publicly, purposefully. If I shared anything with the wild, unknown universe, I wanted to make sure it was engineered with the care and thought that Carl Sagan put into his message to the aliens.

The thing is though, I’m not sending messages to aliens, though it might feel like it. I know that my message is going to be received by someone. I know there are people out there. But it feels just as scary for me to share something with the actual public (as opposed to a curated list of friends) as it does to send something into outer space. What will come back? What if they don’t like me? What if they get the wrong message? What if I’m not understood?

What I think my father missed is that sometimes the risks of going public are worth the reward. I only ever saw the potentially dangerous outcomes — trolls, shame, failure, misunderstanding. However, I recently ran a Kickstarter project and I found out how magical sending something unfinished into the universe can be (I also found trolls).

If any of you readers have ever run a Kickstarter project, you can likely attest to the intensity of the experience. One mentor during my campaign described it as “planting a flag.” You’re putting something out there, a golden record of sorts, and saying, “this is something I care about, a part of who I am, something I made.” And that vulnerability is terrifying, but it’s also universally recognizable. That is the most powerful thing about sharing the unfinished, about being open and raw with the world, is that others can recognize themselves in you. They can see your vulnerability, and know what it takes and that it’s scary to be that way. Being recognized and supported by complete strangers is a moving experience and one that is uniquely, wonderfully human.

Design @ Google | Prior: MFA IxD, IDEO CoLab, Studio Rodrigo

Design @ Google | Prior: MFA IxD, IDEO CoLab, Studio Rodrigo