I’ve been learning to use a pen, lately.
I thought I knew how to use one, but years of trembling lines and toppled letters proved otherwise. The pencil smears should have tipped me off, long before the smears shaped words and the words shaped thoughts, but instead of fixing the method of construction, I internalized the sloppiness of my results.
Eventually, I stopped using physical pen and paper altogether. It’s a digital world, now, so that’s accepted. Penmanship is admired, but not quite valued in our new, fast-paced information age. Words are a method of information transfer, and clarity and conciseness are our key values. Pictures are a means to an end; they’re diagrams and models, not an expression in itself. They used to form maps of the internal and unexplainable — things that could only be visualized in that hazy, gaseous abyss of the mind — but now they’re used to describe and simplify in logical terms. Instead of interpreting ideas, we’re describing them.
If you’re a developer, most of what you do may not even be related to the written word, to communication. Our language is mathematical, and the expression of our thoughts and semantics are limited by our syntactic boundaries. We use words and symbols (drawings!) as a means to something structured and comprehensible, not provoking and infinitely-interpretable. We deal in self-made systematic boxes, and every year someone comes along to move us into a new box.
We’ve systemized our communication, but our thoughts have never been as rational.
I’ve become increasingly focused on improving my grasp of technology, in all its forms. It feels easy, now — to consider a project and visualize the components I need to make it happen. But I look back on the things I dabbled in years ago — illustration, design, writing, percussion — and they were no less difficult than coding at the time — just different. Technology became second nature, when it easily could have been film, journalism, photography. I placed myself securely in tech, but it feels limiting — like I’ve enclosed myself in a box.
Humanity has always been a triumph of creativity, a mushy bag of irrationality and emotion, and to give in to logic for the purpose of building reasoning systems is to ignore what humans do best: think, dream, and provoke in a more primitive and expressive language than any logical language could express — to evoke emotions, prompt reactions, and start conversations with other human beings.
Art is provocative. It’s an idea. It starts as an expression, an outlet in the creator’s mind, and it ends as an experience in the mind of the audience. It’s a concoction of neurons firing, of emotions flaring, of ideas and relations and nostalgia and recognition bubbling up. Art means nothing until it is experienced and interpreted by the audience. Art is nothing without the reaction, the push and pull, the conversation between creator and witness. It’s a manifestation of your emotions, your state of being, your experiences, and your ever-evolving ideology.
Code is code. It does what it does, and exists as it is. You may think of better ways to do something, of features that are missing, but code stands on its own, even if no one observes it. Code is a tool. A versatile tool that touches and affects every sector. Code can strike up a conversation about semantics, ease of use, utility and scalability, interaction, productivity. But it says nothing of raw human emotion. Its impersonal.
Every person has a unique connection to a piece of art, but code does what it does, and it does it the same way every time. Tools don’t change as you change — it’s an expression of its creator, a functional whole presented to you as the culmination of its original environment, and if you don’t align with that original ideology or philosophy, you reject it, you modify it, you find one that does or create your own. In the technical industry, it’s easy to ‘pick sides’: vim versus emacs, imperative versus functional, theoretical versus practical results. Insulation is widespread, and developers could go their entire career without ever working with someone who disagreed with them or their philosophy.
Technology gives you an easy way out — a means of escape. You can make that choice and use it as a means of distraction, of gamification, of virtualization; a way to replicate humanity, to replace our unique imperfections, to automate communication and minimize interaction.
You can also grab technology by the tail — use it to improve our ability to build; to wonder; to share ideas; to collaborate and communicate. After all, aren’t we more interesting than the technology that shapes us?
I’d never thought about the friction of pen on paper until recently. I’d never thought about the shape and angle of a point, the flow of ink, the mechanics of fingertips and shoulder joints. I’d never noticed the strain of palms on wood, the battle between natural arcs of the wrist and aspirations for straighter lines, the constant competing forces that introduced fine points of chaotic action and reaction with every stroke. The polarizing forces had become second-nature, a law of physics — a habitual handicap.
I’m only now finding the freedom and control of movement that comes with holding a pen the right way. Keeping the side of my palm up in broad strokes, keeping the pen pointed high, scaling the set of movements with the breadth of my line, from my fingertips and wrists to my elbows and shoulders. I had naturalized two directions of movement — forward and backward along my pivotal arc — and only now find the mobility to move in other directions. It can feel unruly at times, but the more I do it, the more comfortable I am; I’m in control of where the lines end up, unopposed by constraining forces.
I was tired of moving along a track, of moving forwards and backwards and ‘round again. I was tired of following a template. I wanted to flow inwards, expand outwards, and map out that fluid, amorphous abyss of the mind.
I’ve known artists and filmmakers and screenwriters, dancers and musicians and photographers and philosophers, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really talked to any of them. It’s been a long time since I’ve picked their brains. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt connected to them.
Yet I still get glimpses of them through their work. I have small, personal conversations with them through the things they create, and those conversations change in the same way that I change every single day.
I had a lot of paths to draw from when I was younger, and my parents always encouraged me to do whatever made me happy. I found happiness in many things, including the technology I’ve become complacent with, but computers haven’t made the best company, and certainly haven’t inspired meaningful thoughts or dialogue of their own philosophical initiative. After all, there aren’t any alternative interpretations of code; code has a logic and intention behind it — a function and a purpose.
I’ve learned to communicate logically and diagraphically, but beautiful code still makes for terrible conversation.
The more I indulge in those lost creative pastimes — making markings on paper, absorbing cinema on screen, dancing with those strange, strange creatures of Austin’s musical esteem — the more comfortable I am in my own skin, surrounded by other human beings with unkempt thoughts and opinions and emotions.
With graduation coming up, it feels like the perfect time to revisit those paths — to stray from my arc as a technologist and explore all these lines as a human being.
Maybe, by the end of all this, I’ll know how to use a pen.
“We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.”
“Generation Why?” by Zadie Smith.