Scrubbed Futures

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but one of my pet obsessions is the lacuna — a word or phrase from another language that doesn’t have a satisfactory equivalent in English. The one you’re likely most familiar with is schadenfreude, the German word to describe the joy we feel at witnessing another’s misfortune.

By far my favorite lacuna is saudade, the Portuguese word that means either “longing for a distant other” or “nostalgia for a future that never happened.”

A couple weeks ago I went out to dinner with some friends, one of whom was visiting from out of town. We all went to college at Columbia, and three of our party of four were in the same department. Obviously, we spent a lot of time talking about undergrad, and our current work, and how life never really works out the way you think it will.

None of us are currently in careers that are directly applicable to what we studied in undergrad. There’s the graphic design major who does photo editing for a left-wing media organization. There’s the video producer who works in front-end web development. There’s the interactive media developer who now works as an apprentice shipwright. And then there’s me, the new media installation artist who’s now trying to cobble out a living as a sports journalist.

I don’t think any of this amounts to individual failures on our parts. I also don’t think this is an indictment of our alma mater or, indeed, higher education as a whole. Lots of people end up in careers that don’t match up with their Bachelors’ degree. Like my aunt, who did her undergrad work in accounting and now heads up a successful publishing company.

And yet there was still a generalized sense at the table that we all had, to varying degrees, bet on the wrong horse.

I think it’s really easy to feel down on yourself in these conversations. All that time, all that money, and you didn’t get what you thought you would get out of it. And maybe you didn’t even get the bare minimum, like stable employment with a living wage.

But I also don’t think this is unique to those of us at that table.

The friend who was visiting from out of town was in the same degree program as I was — one that, incidentally, was started about halfway through our undergrad careers and required both of us to change majors. During our time in the program we ended up following some brilliant artists and developers working in computer-mediated art, algorithmic art, API-dependent art, physical computing, etc.

During dinner, said friend and I slowly realized that a lot of the same people we looked up to as leaders in the field we wanted to work in have either gotten out of the game entirely or have retreated into academia.

Casey Reas, one of the founders of Processing (which for several years was my go-to work medium), has drastically ramped down his output.

Jer Thorpe, whose work got me hooked on data and API as material, closed his studio earlier this summer.

Golan Levin has shifted away from active artmaking and toward teaching.

Jonathan McIntosh, whose work in video mashups and fair use advocacy resonated with me at a crucial time in my professional life, is now mostly a GamerGate meme.

Marisa Olson, who I got to work with briefly during a workshop at my department, was harassed off of the internet a few years ago and hasn’t really come back.

With the notable exception of Cory Arcangel, everyone I looked up to in undergrad has undergone some significant professional upheaval.

For my part, while working in journalism definitely has its drawbacks, I don’t necessarily think I got the short end of the stick compared to what I was originally going to do with my life.

And anyway, my big takeaway from that dinner was that I have brilliant friends. Friends who would’ve been successful no matter what they did with their lives. The one who visited from out of town would’ve made a great interactive designer, but now she gets to tell people that she builds ships for a living. That’s pretty rad.

Still. Sometimes I can’t help but think of the life I could’ve had. The life I almost have. I wonder what I’d be doing now if I stuck it out, if I stayed in grad school and got my MFA and then went into teaching, if I then lucked out and had my work catch on and get gallery representation and spend much of my work life making weird computer art. And as much as I like the work I do now, I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a sense of longing for what I don’t have.

Nostalgia for a future that never happened.

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