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Teleporting through the Emphasis Economy

Art History and the Future of Apps

Imagine the scene…

A black, tinted, driverless Tesla rolls up to an abandoned storefront in Menlo Park and out jumps three unmistakable geniuses: A woman in her mid-twenties dressed in an oversized, off-the-shoulder MIT sweatshirt and black faux-leather jeggings; a man in his sixties in a mock-turtleneck, salt-and-pepper mustache and vintage straight-leg jeans and woman in her thirties in a long lab coat carrying some sort of expensive looking hard-sided briefcase.

The three inventors announce to no one in particular that they’ve created a new technology that combines teleportation and time-travel. They open the suitcase and reveal a single giant red button. The MIT woman presses the button and WHAM! the abandoned store front transforms into a thriving company, filled with 800 people working on some kind of new technology product. WHAM! she hits the button again and suddenly the building is a bakery with a line around the block of people coming for bread and treats and WHAM! she presses it a third time and it’s a school with kids and parents and WHAM! it’s now a jail and WHAM! it’s now a junk yard and WHAM! it’s now a tea garden and WHAM! it’s now a fire station and WHAM! it’s now a grocery store and WHAM! it’s now a church and WHAM! it’s now a roller-rink and WHAM! it’s now a dentist’s office and WHAM! it’s now a paint-it-yourself ceramics shop. She hits the button one last time and WHAM! the building returns to being an abandoned storefront.

Stunned, the small crowd of people who saw the demonstration, erupt with a mixture of fear and amazement. Everything they thought they knew about how the world worked had just been crushed by a single red button and three weirdos in a black car.

The trio get back into their ride, which silently speeds off towards Sand Hill Road, before disappearing in a blink with one last WHAM!

This technology could change the world for sure. How do we know? We’ve seen something like it before, but the first time it came along was a little different—more virtual—and could be executed with a pencil and a ruler and some math and was invented by an Artist-Mathematician-Hacker in the early 1400s.

Art life

How could artists 600 years ago create something even remotely similar to time-travel and teleportation? It’s a stretch, I know, but hang with me for a second and keep your imagination open: The marvelous technology I’m talking about is the near-perfection of linear perspective drawing.

Before perspective, the most important figures in a composition were usually the biggest—the less important the figure, the smaller it was painted into the scene. With perspective, scale suddenly encoded distance as well as importance.

And once you could accurately depict distance, you could simulate locations, not just hint at them.

The Italian art historians nicknamed perspectival drawing ‘Apertura Finestra’ (open window) because it was as if each image opened a window into that moment. The artist could suddenly share a point of view (that also included a actual view) and the lucky viewer, with just a little bit of imagination, could reverse-engineer the location of the artist from the image itself. You felt like you were there. You could imagine reaching out and touching a world on the other side of the image.

The process started in antiquity, but never quite made it out of the proto-perspective stage. Artists were just guessing, and they didn’t really have a system to get it right. The development faded through the middle ages and then re-emerged with this guy, Filippo Brunelleschi, whose nifty pencil and ruler trick helped give birth to the Renaissance. The tecnique would hold for the next five Centuries.

Raphael’s “School of Athens” combines these two origins in a single work. He inserts secret portraits of the leading lights of the Renaissance into a composition that celebrates both the Ancient Greeks and aspirations of the Vatican. But most importantly, when you walk into the Apostolic Palace and see the work, you feel like you are teleported to another time and place.

The technique works equally well for real spaces and imagined ones. For instance, the scene in The School of Athens isn’t a real place, it’s a mixture of Greek and Roman architecture and styles, but it feels real through the expert use perspective.

Great artists use the flaws, limits and distortions of a technique to augment the emphasis of key elements. Often the entire point of art is to create subtlety altered emphasis through distortion and “incorrect” but effective choices; Lead the eye to the most important thing, and then lead the eye to the next and the next. For instance, the head and hands of Michealanglo’s David are disproportionally large. But it works. You wouldn’t want them any other way.

The distortion an artist chooses (and the emphasis hierarchy she creates) can reveal as much about the work as the subject itself. It also is what gives it meaning.

In the last 100 years, emphasis has proven so important that it completely replaced a knowable subject in abstraction and then went on to serve as the rubric of meaning for conceptual work.

Bruce Nauman, “Pay Attention” 1973

In today’s contemporary art practice, emphasis may sometimes comprise the entirety of an artist’s vocabulary.

When photography replaced painting as the most reliable visual record of history, and painting was freed of the drag of visual veracity, artists then could chase emphasis all the way past representation towards an essential emotional or intellectual “truth” while simultaneously re-affirming what Raphael, Big Mike, Leonardo and crew knew all along—it was never really about faithfully depicting reality as much as it has always been about tapping into an interesting signal emanating from the human condition and pointing out what matters.

What is the new Apertura Finestra?

Almost certainly a new Apertura Finestra sits in your hand and hides in your pocket. You might even be reading this post on it right now (tweet me if you are and lmk if you’re on ios, android or other…).

Our window through time and space isn’t an illusion of a view—it is a temporal grifting of emphasis. Our phones pull our attention to each particular tiny glimpse. And every glimpse matters. Each fragment represents a momentary eternity.

What will we do when we can experience almost any moment anywhere on the planet all at once?

How will empathy, nationality, and intellectual curiosity change when spatial/temporal boundaries can be swiped with a your thumb? Do we achieve ultimate empathy or does it trivialize and desensitize the poignancy of the human condition? Do we develop a bias towards sharable-moments over unsharable ones? And what will it mean when we actively choose to keep our phones stowed (even if just for a few minutes)? My hope is that connecting better with more humans will make us better humans.

Today’s Emphasis Economy

As the horsepower of our gizmos becomes a commodity, our apps and smart things will compete to figure out and then highlight what matters most.

How can you get ahead in today’s era of emphasis? What can you do to prepare? Learn from cinematographers, editors, stylists, TV-producers and anyone else who’s job it is to point out the important stuff in the middle of a lot of other distracting stuff. Learn your art history. Read a well-edited book.

Value in the Emphasis Economy won’t come from filtering the noise, but from featuring the signal.

Lighting designers on Broadway do this every night by shining an actual spotlight on the performer during her big moment (and dimming the rest of the stage lights). Newspaper layout artists make headlines big and correction notices small. Medium posts use big beautiful images that blur and fade on the web when you read the body copy. Start looking and you’ll see emphasis techniques all around you.

To create value in the emphasis economy, it won’t be good enough to make things pretty or clean or fast or higher-resolution; you’ll have to do a better job than anyone else at finding what matters and bringing it to people before they even knew they should look for it. Now that’s a WHAM! worth repeating.




Complements to the human condition.

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James Buckhouse

James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB &

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