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Your Own Personal Canon

“We are, each of us, largely responsible for what gets put into our brains.”

It’s an interesting notion, isn’t it? Have you ever thought about culture — and how you interact with it — that way? It’s certainly easy to say, especially if we’re being prescriptive. After all, we’ve got plenty of cultural mad libs for this sort of thing — “you are what you [blank]” — and the like. You can fill in the blank with just about anything you want: “eat” or “read” or what have you. But maybe being prescriptive is too easy. It leads us down unnecessarily judgmental paths, assigning “good” and “bad” in ways that might be suitable for us, right now, but not for everyone at all times. Take the internet, for example. Access to it can lead to decadence or edification. Ultimately, it’s a neutral doorway. But the experience beyond it — and its qualitative measure — is entirely up to us. Another way of looking at it is this: We get to choose the voices in our heads.

Just a few weeks ago, Mark and I sat in my living room, talking about the past year at Newfangled. We’ve made it a tradition to set aside an afternoon each summer to reflect upon what has worked and what hasn’t, ideas we have for changes and improvements to what we do, and our hopes for the future. This time, we both — at various points in our long conversation — had remarked upon the other’s influence upon what we do, how we do it, and even how we think about it. Toward the end of our time together, Mark said simply, “Your voice is in my head.” Since then, that statement — in his voice — has echoed in mine. We all have voices in our heads — our own, in various forms; the voices of loved ones, living and dead; even the voices of those whom we have never met, but who influence us through their work. This is a theme that often comes up in conversations between us, but it was an especially fitting one this year. This time, we each sat on one of three Eames stools that Mark had just given me for my birthday. Knowing how much I admire their work, he had searched far and wide for them and proudly set them up in my living room while I hid — at his request — in another room. What a wonderful surprise to see them there (and what a wonderful gift)! Though I never met the Eameses, and only know them through their work, theirs are two of many “voices” that are permanently in my head, shaping who I am and how I think.

It’s good to keep the mind open, to make room in there for other people. Actually, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that this happens no matter what — that the mind and the mind’s “I” is a crowd of voices assembling over time through experience. But we don’t have to be passive in that process. We can take an active role in the curation of that crowd. That’s largely Sagan’s point, I think: to not just recognize that the voices are there, but to be intentional about seeking out good ones.

It’s also good to share them, if possible.

I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

See, just the other day, a brief post from Russell Davies popped into my RSS reader (yes, RSS! Still!). Here it is, in total:

“I think I refer people to this piece more than any other single bit of writing. Fascinating and illuminating.”

“This piece” was linked to a long piece by Malcom Gladwell from 2000 on why some people choke and others panic. I haven’t read it yet, but since Russell recommends it, I will.

But what intrigued me was the “I refer people to this piece more than any other” bit. In my time following him, Russell has done this sort of metareferencing — referring to stuff he refers to — before. I’ve probably noticed it because I have the same habit. As I imagine is also true for him, my recurring references are often to the conduits and products of those gathering voices in my head. It’s a big, prolific crowd, which makes for an ever growing list of recurring references. I have a sense for this because I’ve tried to keep track of them. In fact, I’ve kept a text document on my desktop for years now called “Canon.txt”. It contains a long list of links to articles, audio, and video. It’s the stuff on the web that has been most important to me; the stuff that I refer to over and over again; the stuff that has added new voices into my head. Of course, it’s a changing and incomplete list (of course many of the voices in my head come from people and works that can’t easily be linked to). It expands and contracts. I’m continually curating it. Some of it is video content that I’ve collected elsewhere — in playlists at YouTube and Vimeo. There are also written pieces that I’ve collected in my Year of Ideas series over the years. Much of it is scattered about, but this private document is the definitive index of my personal web canon. Knowing that it will continue to change — this is the nature of lists of web content — I thought it might be good to share some of my canon, as it is today, with you. So, here’s a selection from my list:

  1. The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Brownowski (video playlist)
  2. Attention, People of Earth, by Paul Sims
  3. Cosmic Clock, by Al Jarnow (video)
  4. The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke (video playlist)
  5. The End of Solitude, by William Deresiewicz
  6. The Engines of Our Ingenuity, by John Lienhard (audio)
  7. Everything I Know, by Buckminster Fuller (video playlist)
  8. Fred Rogers Archive Interview, by TVLegends (video playlist)
  9. A History of the Sky, by Ken Murphy (video)
  10. How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, by Philip K. Dick
  11. How to See the Future, by Warren Ellis
  12. Jerry’s Map, by Jerry Gretzinger (video)
  13. The Local-Global Flip, by Jaron Lanier (video)
  14. Lumiere et Compagnie, by David Lynch (video)
  15. Murmuration, by Islands & Rivers (video)
  16. The Novelist as God, by OnBeing (audio)
  17. On Pessimism, by Alain de Botton (video)
  18. Our Digital Crisis, by Jonathan Harris
  19. The Room and the Elephant, by Sven Birkerts
  20. Time, by RadioLab (audio)
  21. Space Collective Gallery, by Space Collective (images)
  22. THINK, by IBM (video)
  23. Ways of Seeing, by John Berger (video playlist)

Those are some of the voices in my head right now. What are some of yours?

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