Death, Aliveness, & XOXO 2015

September 10th–13th, Portland OR

Illustration by Brendan Monroe

I’ve been writing on my commute for a few months now. Usually this happens on BART, but today I’m on a flight back from Portland, where I spent the last 3.5 days at one of the most intelligent, wise, and compassionate groups of people I’ve ever been a part of. It was, of course, XOXO 2015, an “experimental festival celebrating independently produced art and technology” that feels like something a lot more special than any short description can capture.

Infused in every detail throughout the event was an overarching spirit of care, inclusion, sensitivity, warmth, and fun.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize all of the talks. The videos are going to be posted online and many many words will be written here. Since I’m planning to post this before my plane lands, I’ll stick to trying to synthesize my own interpretation of the string of talks, conversations, and people I experienced as best I can.

The speaker lineup was pretty much flawless. Even its flaws were appreciated, because without taking a few risks on the super diverse set of voices, many of the most powerful moments might not have had a chance to surface.

As I try to process it all, a couple themes come into focus that connected many of the speakers.

Several people spoke about death: how we’re all going to die, how that helps us accept imperfection, how it impacts us when it happens painfully near us, how it changes us when we come close to it ourselves.

Several people spoke about abuse: how it’s a constant roar in the background, how to integrate it without allowing it to crush your soul, how we can try to empathize with people who abuse without condoning it, while somehow remaining kind, how designing systems can help us understand how abusive systems can be made of people who think they’re the good guys.

Several people talked about depression: how to allow yourself to feel bad without beating yourself up, how to interpret external and internal voices of extreme loathing, how sometimes accepting vulnerability can make you stronger, how going off the path and killing your dreams might take you to better places, how sometime the only thing you can do is wait with readiness.

And several people talked about chaos: how it feels, how to adapt to it, how to appreciate it.

The meta-theme through all of these topics was about slowly piecing together what seems (to me) to be a small but growing cultural shift away from trying to get rid of THE BAD and learning to view the whole system in which THE BAD is merely a part.

This changes the way we can think about THE BAD. Rather than trying to make it go away directly (symptoms), we can look at the health of the entire system, and our place within it, and our ability to contribute to it.

A few dots that helped draw this together for me over the last few days:

  • Nicky Case’s Parable of the Polygons which shows how even a slight bias against a group can cause harmless choices to eventually create a harmful world.
  • Zoe Quinn’s story about how even she contributed to exclusion and abuse at times, and how oftentimes abuse is as much about people trying to prove worthiness in their own group as it is about intentionally hurting others. How “no single snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche that rains down on somebody”. What can we do to notice our own attempts to use unkind acts as a way to score points with our peers?
  • Eric Meyer’s talk about how every system’s design is infused with our own values, whether we try to put them there or not. As system designers, we have a responsibility (and opportunity) to design systems with stronger values. They may not change us (we are old), but our children will see the values in these systems as normal. That is both scary and exciting.
  • Eric and Nicky also commented on how small changes in the inputs to a system can create giant changes in the outputs. If you put compassion into the system, it will be either squelched or magnified, and the same will happen if you put hatred into the system. The system’s filtering or magnification of the output depends on the design of the system.
  • Amit Gupta brought a bright light to how our lives are made of the seemingly meaningless activities we do every day. Sitting in a hospital room that he didn’t know if he would ever leave, he expressed envy of the people out the window, on the freeway, stuck in traffic. We do not get forever. We should see every act as a contribution to a finite set of acts, all building to a single contribution to the world. We should not delay working on the things that make us feel alive in the world, and help the world feel alive.
  • Kathy Sierra talked about a simple shift. We shouldn’t just try make awesome things, we should try to make awesome people. An awesome tool that never gets used is a waste. A tool that makes a person awesome, that improves the system / community / life of another in some way, is infinitely more valuable. We should try to help each other come alive.

Death, abuse, depression, and chaos are part of one big system. Clean lines can’t be cut between death and aliveness, depression and creativity, chaos and surprise. We are also part of the system. If each of us is a pixel/voxel in a giant network of like pixels/voxels. Each of us with idiosyncratic and often unconscious biases, values, destructive acts, creative acts, reactions, interpretations, story beginnings, and story ends.

What can we do? What should we do?

Some rather quickly drafted ideas:

We can help craft the system best by crafting ourselves. We are a part of it, and the part of it that we have the most impact on. By understanding our own flaws, we can be easier on others. Then, by striving to understand others’ flaws, we can be easier on ourselves.

By designing creative works that honor our own real life, we can help others honor their own lives.

We can help the system by actively participating in it. By being patient with our own creative process, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we can gain patience for the pace of change in other parts of the system. By making space for new people, different people, we can show others how to do the same. By having empathy for people as they are rather than how we’d like them to be, they can have space to change, and we might learn something new about them.

Being at XOXO and seeing evidence of the growing narrative around empathy, kindness, systems thinking, self-acceptance, and appreciation for the shortness of life gives me hope for the future in a way that I haven’t had in a while.

The plane is now on its final decent, which means I need to post this before they turn off wifi.

To everyone I met or re-connected with this weekend, it was an honor! I feel extremely lucky to be part of this community.

— written on a plane

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