Are Self-Reflection And Timelessness Possible On The Internet? [PSFK NYC 2012]

Are Self-Reflection And Timelessness Possible On The Internet? [PSFK NYC 2012]

Jonathan Harris talks about how humanizing the web will create long-lasting ideas and content, and shares his latest digital storytelling project, Cowbird.

Dan Gould
  • 17 march 2012



We’re happy to have Jonathan Harris as one of the speakers at our upcoming PSFK CONFERENCE NYC 2012. On March 30th the artist and computer scientist will talk about his latest project, Cowbird, and the back story and personal journey of how it came to be. Cowbird is an online community focused on a deeper, longer-lasting, more personal kind of storytelling, with the long-term goal of building a public library of human experience to be shared with future generations.

Known for innovative work that explores how humans relate to technology and to each other. He is the co-creator of We Feel Fine and has exhibited around the world at museums such as MoMA and Le Centre Pompidou.

You’ve been involved with several high profile new media projects in the past. The early ones of these were based on real-time information. Cowbird seems to be a slower more considered approach to storytelling on the Internet. What led you to create Cowbird?

My past projects like We Feel Fine, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt were more like portraits, whereas Cowbird is more like a tool or an intervention.

I noticed that communication was getting shorter and shorter, and more and more compressed. From letter-writing, to phone calls, to faxes, to emails, to chats, to texts, to tweets, things just kept speeding up. But it wasn’t clear if there could be another level of compression after the tweet. It seemed we were about to hit a terminal velocity, and hit some kind of wall, suddenly bouncing back in the opposite direction, craving more substance and depth. I think we’re already seeing this hunger for substance and meaning in technology, in the same way that fast food is being abandoned for slow food.

With Cowbird, I have three main goals: The first is to create a space for a deeper, longer-lasting kind of self-expression than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web. The second is to pioneer a new form of participatory journalism, grounded in the simple human stories behind major news events. The third is to build a public library of human experience — a kind of Wikipedia for life experience.

Eventually, my dream is that Cowbird will be used every day by millions of people in dozens of languages all over the world, communicating stories of their lived experience.

I also hope Cowbird can transform education — away from static curriculums, and into a system where we learn directly from each other.

How do you think storytelling and sharing personal content will evolve beyond our current “social media” era?

As we live our lives, we accumulate knowledge and wisdom. When we die, that knowledge and wisdom usually disappears (because very few people ever capture it). This means that generation after generation, we keep relearning the same life lessons, making the same mistakes, and struggling in the same familiar ways. I think there is a chance to learn from each other directly, and to remember this learning from generation to generation, so collectively, as a species, we improve. Life stories are good containers for wisdom. They fill up as we live, getting deeper and richer with age. And in some sense, the thing you ultimately create in your life is your life story. Cowbird gives people a place to put these life stories, so that other people can learn from them, even after you die.

This is a movement away from self-promotion and into self-reflection. Away from curation and into creation. Away from disposability and into timelessness. Away from compression and into a deepening. These are all shifts that Cowbird is trying to encourage.

One of the themes of the PSFK NYC 2012 conference is “Creativity in Action.” Are there specific environments or processes that you use to foster creative thinking and novel ideas?

I spend a lot of time in solitude, and a lot of time in nature. I also go swimming every day. When you go to the woods, or to the desert, or to water, and you consider your ideas, if the ideas seem timeless and valid in places like that, then they are probably very good ideas. If ideas seem good in the context of a city, it’s often because they are trendy and sexy and fashionable (like people who live in cities), but not necessarily nourishing, timeless, and strong. I call these natural ideas versus city ideas.

Thanks Jonathan!

Jonathan Harris / @jjhnumber27

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