I am beginning a transition this week. It’s been a long time coming, actually, but there will be a flurry of activity in the upcoming weeks, and I wanted to be sure to capture these moments.
I’ve been taking daily, self portrait, narcissist photos for a long while now, but this video above documents a subset from about April of this year until yesterday. This represents the time between when I was accepted to the Media Lab at MIT until now
Software Artists or Plumbers
I really can’t complain about my career so far. I’ve made some really fun stuff with some amazing people. I’ve run a studio, have worked with “name-brand” clients, and have seen stuff I’ve built making people happy. I’ve been able to feed myself (too well, actually) all while avoiding the “9-5 grind.” (granted, it’s been more like a 24/7 grind, but at least it’s a grind of my own choosing).
With some notable exceptions, though, the past couple of years have been really difficult for me, professionally. I’ve found myself hitting a ceiling where the kind of work I’m typically hired to do is no longer creatively fulfilling. When people want apps made, they want to hire plumbers, they don’t want to hire software artists. I found the most conflict with projects where the clients just wanted me to shut up and build.
I realized I’m better than that and likely smarter than they or I have given myself credit for.
I used to talk about building avant garde robot performance art, robot ballerinas and robots that played with kids in classrooms… I used to talk about that stuff A LOT.
If you had asked me, even last year, whether or not my career has moved me closer to those visions, I’d sigh and say, “no, I’m ‘just’ building iPhone apps.”
Then, one day, I actually stopped and looked at my portfolio from just the past few years and then remembered every job and startup in which I’ve participated.
Learning. Robots. Technology. Art. Design.
It’s all there. It’s always been there.
… that’s when I got excited again. That’s also when opportunity slapped me in the face.
MIT Media Lab and Personal Robots
Since many of my projects involved building apps and robots and games for kids, a friend sent over an RFP from a professor at MIT who needed some help with Unity 3D apps for kids, Dr. Cynthia Breazeal.
I knew exactly who she was, given my long-lived interest in robots that can express emotion. She is a luminary in social robotics and human robot interaction; one of her most famous projects, Kismet, is recognized as revolutionary in the way it participates in human social interaction while simulating human emotion and appearance.
I met with her and her Ph.D student, we hit it off, and I have been working as a consultant with her group, Personal Robots, at the MIT Media Lab for about a year and half. We’re engaging in app, robot, and toy development to help in early literacy development among young people. For example, we worked with OLPC to send literacy apps to remote villages in Ethiopia.
Through all this, I still kept working with my other clients and plodding along, but I started getting hooked by the audacity of the work and the constant pushing of the envelope she and her students do every day. It’s MIT, for crying out loud.
Midway through the project, I had a long conversation with Cynthia about what it might mean for me to be a student in her group. She let me in on just how big her vision is and I realized I’d been thinking way too small.
At this point, I wanted to go all-in. I wanted this to be what I worked on 24/7, very badly.
It’s just too important and there’s no way I could do it on my own.
So, I tossed my application in last December, and earlier this year, I was humbled by my acceptance, among some of the world’s most talented thinkers and makers, into the Media Lab as a Research Assistant (i.e. graduate student) and will be beginning my work there, full-time in the next week.
I have a lot more to say about this transition. I’m slightly older than the average student (but I don’t think the oldest), I have a partner of almost 8 years who was impacted by this decision (she, thankfully, has a wonderful job two T-stops away from MIT and is rooting for me). It took a lot of number crunching to build financial ROI justification (all students have their tuition covered and get a small stipend, but it’s not pretty… I’ve decided it’s easily one of the best investments I could make right now). I’m scared to death of the intellectual challenges ahead. I hate the pace of academia. I’m not sure, yet, if this is actually a short term or long term play for me. Fraud complex is going to be a constant demon in my life. I’ll talk more about those in later blog posts.
For right now, though, I’m happy and excited.
This past summer, I’ve been practicing extensive quantified self experiments; I’ve been keeping minute-by-minute logs of how I’m spending my time, what I eat, movies I watch, etc. I have a good sense of what’s difficult to capture (ex. “who is in my proximity right now) and what’s rote (ex “what time did I get up?”).
My computers take my photo and capture what’s on my screen every few minutes or so. I’m wearing a fitbit, I’m logging everything I can think about, obsessively, and have written software and prototyped tools that make this easier and automtatic… frictionless.
I haven’t done much work, yet, on what to do with this data. I’m just excited to be collecting it, fairly robustly. I have faith I’ll develop interesting ways to process this data to give my insight sometime soon.
Ultimately, I’d like to answer questions about the conditions that lend to a more prolific creative output. Sure, I’d want to a/b test and optimize for ouput (ex. “At which coffee shop and at what time of day do I tend to write my best stories?”)… to be able to see trends that make me happier and more productive is powerful.
However, more importantly, I’m interested in how the next couple of years at MIT will change me. To do that, I need baseline measurements and tracking all along the way. I need to run experiments in an environment where eccentric experimentation is pretty normal. I will walk out of the Media Lab with terrabytes of data about my body, life, and the way I think. How do you put a price on that?
Making Things and My Blog
If I look at the times in my professional life when I was happiest, it was when I am actually making things that I 100% believed in. The more I make, the happier and healthier I am (literally — I recently discovered that my weight fluctuates with my professional satisfaction).
Indeed, this yearning for “being more creative” drove me to take the next couple of years to break out of my comfort zone and experiment wildly with intellectual ideas.
I’ve written this blog on and off since 2002. About a decade. In the early first few years I wrote some epic rants and short stories and writeups of my misadventures that still make me laugh and cry today.
In 2011, I wrote just one post. One. And it was just a stupid youtube link.
While I’ve made some really great things for clients recently, it’s hard for me to list more than a few things I made strictly for myself. Like a lot of people, I have a notebook stuffed with ideas and sketches. I have a a folder on my computer filled with half-baked code prototypes.
So here’s what I want, now:
- I want to live a healthy, curious life.
- I want to wonder about my world and ask questions.
- I want to tinker and experiment to answer those questions.
- I want to make things that demonstrate what I’ve learned.
- I want to share them with you, probably on this blog.
- Repeat every day, until I die. Indeed. memento mori
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