Learning Through Both Physical and Virtual Discovery

This morning, I read Bill McKibben’s “Pause! We Can Go Back!,” a review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. My friend and mentor of twenty years, the filmmaker Jill Godmilow, emailed it to me. I immediately thought of Delicate Steve’s interview with Bob Boilen on “All Songs Considered,” and then I mentally time-traveled to 2011…

I was in Austin in 2011 for SXSW, learning from other startups, networking, and promoting my own digital products. The interactive component of the conference ended with a “surprise” performance at the enormous Stubb’s BBQ concert venue. I reluctantly waited in line with hundreds of others, hopeful to hear something like LCD Soundsystem, who had appeared in a previous year. Once we were all inside, The Foo Fighters took the stage. Considered by many to be “the last great American rock band,” they’re just not my thing. A traveling companion saw the boredom on my face and asked, “Do you want to hear something different?”

6th Street was dead for the first time all week (nearly all the conference attendees were at Stubb’s), and we popped into a small bar where about ten other patrons huddled near a wiry young man on a small stage. Delicate Steve began to play The Ballad of Speck and Pebble. My brain lit up. It was one of the most inspiring live performances I’ve ever heard.

In my kitchen, six years later, while I was making applesauce with my earbuds in, Slate’s “Political Gabfest” ended, and Mr. Boilen’s voice came on to introduce Steve Marion, aka Delicate Steve, on “All Songs Considered.” Marion talked about being a “Napster kid” as well as how he was inspired to play music after his grandmother gave him a toy guitar. He dove into the rabbit holes of discovery that were available via the Internet to a kid living in northwestern New Jersey. Driven by curiosity and play, using the physical and virtual tools available to him, he began to create. Last year, he played slide guitar on Paul Simon’s new album, and next week, he’ll be at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

In McKibbon’s review in The New York Review of Books, he comments, “Spotify’s playlists show people picking the same tunes over and over.” I believe the same was true when analogue music dominated. Virgin Megastore promoted the latest big release from one of the giant record labels. The difference now is that more tools — virtual and physical — are now available to us. How we use them is up to us. We need to ensure that everyone, especially young people are aware of them all and how to use them properly for discovery. Dig deep into that artists’s archive on Spotify. Flip through those old records on Bleeker Street.

a Steenbeck 16mm flatbed editing system, like the one I learned to use

In the late 1990’s, Jill Godmilow taught me how to edit film and sound by hand. I used an 8-plate Steenbeck. It was a lot of work to cut a film like that, but it helped me understand the value of a frame: 1/24 of a second.

my daughter focuses on her homework

Now I have a child, and I try to help her understand how things work by making mechanical object available to her. She’ll pick up the hand-made kaleidoscope I brought back from London, or crank the Kikkerland music box to hear “Waltzing Matilda.” Together, we play both Minecraft and Clue. Her favorite Christmas present last month was a record player. She chooses to put on the Taylor Swift record “Red” over and over and over again. She also explores Minecraft videos made by other kids all over the world. Some of these interaction blend the virtual and the physical, like using the Osmo pizza game, learning math while playing, or programming Dash to wheel around the apartment, learning problem-solving.

We can foster creativity and encourage exploration using whatever tools we have available to us. I am not advocating constant barrage of entertainment or toys — there is also value in escaping into a book or a tent in the woods — but new, digital tools are not necessarily a bad thing, and to many, they offer ways to learn and build, expanding their minds and enriching our culture.

Explore, be weird, enjoy what you do, learn through what you enjoy. But do be careful not to lose yourself entirely into the virtual world. The physical world offers a nearly limitless amount of new experiences and adventures. These are thrilling to us because of our human nature, and even as we learn how to embrace the digital to a greater extent, we should do so to enrich our lives, not in an attempt to replace something that doesn’t need replacing.

I will always be grateful to Jill Godmilow for showing me how to analyze the finest moving parts to a completed whole, which I often have to do in a purely digital format, where the individual elements are not so apparent. I appreciate the music from Delicate Steve, meticulously constructed with his mind and fingers through a medley of neuron-firings, Google searches, and guitar riffs. I am thankful that my daughter wonders at our Remington typewriter and miniature carousel, watches the interlocking pieces, and reconstructs some of these relationships with blocks on her iPad, with dominos on the table, and with her friends in the schoolyard.

Wonderland kaleidoscope, Kikkerland music box, Delicate Steve
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