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◌  Making smart

23 May 2012

Many people fed me ideas (sometimes deliberately) or let me talk at them about this. Off the top of my head, in roughly forward order by chronology and roughly reverse by directness of editing help: Marisa E., @justwrought, @shu, @rogre, @tealtan, @kissane, and @maxfenton. Thanks.

The title is partly from a habit of my niece. When we yell she says we’re making loud; when we run she says we’re making fast.

A few months ago I was grumpy and said:

Dear artists and entertainers, here’s how you make your thing “smart”: don’t punish the audience for thinking. That’s it. You don’t have to mention quantum mechanics or the question of free will. You can make it about pro wrestling or tic-tac-toe or trimming your nails – doesn’t matter. What matters is that the audience can enjoy it without numbing integral parts of their brains.

That’s all I really have to say: let’s think of smartness as something we leave in, not something we put in.

Want to make a lot of money? Find a well-off audience and something they want to believe. Tell a story of colorful details and dramatic reversals that alights as if discovering on a disguised version of the desired idea. Make it feel earned. And plot your explanations so that the holes look like places where you outran the audience – evidence of how smart you are.

You can see a lot of this in The New York Times’s opinion section, in TED talks, and on business strategy shelves. And most other places.

When we think of something as smart because it comes to a clearly true conclusion via reasoning that’s hard to follow, bad justifications for our own biases can pass as smart. The tool that’s supposed to lever us out of preconceptions is used to wedge us in. Cynical people will let us pay them to put on show trials of our assumptions, condemning a token few but, after dramatic cross-examination, finding the most beloved ones … innocent!

No good story is entirely unlike this, or ever could be. Anything people listen to willingly is somehow telling them what they want to hear. But we can ask questions like Would the audience still like this as they learned more about it? and decide that some things are agreeable in a wholesome way but others are pandering.

Think of exploitations of beauty and humor.

For beauty, there’s kitsch, like Thomas Kincade and velvet paintings of crying children. Milan Kundera identifies kitsch with totalitarianism: it’s art calculated to allow only one response. Most of us can’t avoid feeling nervio for an airbrush of a crying child even if we know it’s manipulative. We can learn to mold and reinterpret that kind of response, but we can’t not feel it.

For humor, there’s hacky comedy. Douglas Adams had a great example of this: You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff? Of course if you made the entire plane that way it would be too heavy to fly, and you have to expect any alert Westerner to realize this about a half-second after they laugh. So the joke is imputing an unexplored, unsustainable, unfunny falsehood for a momentary feeling of superiority to reality. This kind of collapsing pseudo-joy is, to me, more cynical and heart-wearying than any sincerely sad thing.

These manipulative uses of beauty and humor are parallel. Both attract our attention without repaying it and leave us feeling used. Many people ask us not to feel that way. They argue that we should be happy with our first responses and not dwell or dig: that beauty and humor are ruined by analysis. This is asking very little of art. It’s not too much to hope that gorgeous and funny things might stay that way even when we get to know them better. It’s also unrealistic. People will always ask tricky questions, so if you’ve made something that can’t answer them, you’re probably better off admitting that you aren’t perfect than telling them they’re experiencing the world wrong. And really, it’s upsetting. It’s upsetting because it’s something an unhappy person would say – someone who doesn’t even want to be a person. Perhaps a dog, who would know the pleasures of feeling without the troubles of wondering.

And just as for beauty and humor, so for cleverness.

How do we treat things we respect? We pay attention to them, we take their point of view, we explain them to others, but we let them be themselves. This is hard work. If the thing you respect is not only a thing but a person, it’s the hardest there is.

Interpretive work is hard because you have to respect both the topic and the audience. You are like a go-between for friends. You serve two masters: one that you want to speak for itself as much as possible, and one whom you want to understand for itself as much as possible. You should plan to fail. It’s not worth hoping first to have in yourself a true representation of something out there and then to re-represent that into an audience. That’s wishing to be a telepath.

What might be worth a try is to give the audience the best of your interpretations and step out of the way. Be like training wheels, which are better the sooner they leave. I think most training wheels aren’t particularly useful at teaching a kid how to balance – what they mostly do is let them ride fast enough to understand why it’s worth learning to balance. Be like that.

Deciding how much to interpret is finding a balance. On the side of too little interpretation, there’s dryness. We’ve all read textbooks that amounted to lists of facts. Neurotypical people can’t absorb that. We need the interpretation, the narrative, the story that tells us which facts caused which, which ones are important, and what they might mean. Fear people who don’t get this. People who think that facts contain their own interpretations are interpreting unconsciously. Wherever people like to call themselves objective, look for enormous unnamed subjectivities. It’s like angry politicians being hypocrites.

On the side of too much interpretation, there’s an inverse species of the scarily unhinged: those who, perhaps having seen and diagnosed and been scared by excessively dry people, try to live in a world of only interpretation. It’s just as sad. Stories are how we remember things, and what they don’t get their tendrils in tends to fade away. We all know that a good story can erase from the mind what contradicts it, but it can also erase what it just doesn’t need. I’ve read a lot of books that suffer from this. The writer wanted to pare it down to what was vital and cut and cut until there was no viscera, only a skeleton. This is better than bad storytelling, but I don’t feel much of anything when I read it, because it’s only storytelling.

Smart people can take something complex and express it faithfully in different, especially simpler, terms. They can interpret and reinterpret. If you want to make something smart, it’s tempting to do smartness to your topic until you’ve condensed it into some admirably lucid interpretation, then hand that to the audience and wait for the applause. Sometimes this is what’s needed. But it isn’t how to make smart things. A smart thing is something for smart people. However many interpretations you put in it, however fertile they are, you leave room for more.

You do this because you respect what you are interpreting and you do it because you respect your audience. It’s a lot like being considerate. And that’s how you make smart things.