Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
2010: The Year We Make Up

This is one of my favorite times, the liminal space between one year and the next. For most people, this time for intense thinking and planmaking runs from Christmas through New Year's, but at MIT this period is extended through the beginning of February. (Yet another reason I love it so much here at MIT.) According to MIT tradition, January is what's known as the Independent Activities Period, or IAP – originally founded (according to legend) in the 1960s as a way for students to take off and protest the Vietnam War all at once, instead of disappearing for random weeks out of the year. IAP has since evolved into a sort of micro-semester crammed in between the autumn semester and the spring semester, a month set aside for students (and faculty and staff) to enroll in courses they might not otherwise have a chance to take, to go off and tackle an externship somewhere, or to simply recuperate from MIT's normal grueling demands. (Another local legend likens an MIT education to drinking from a fire hose, which is truer than might be comfortable. This is, not coincidentally, why my friend Eitan named his new startup Firehose Games.)

I love this time not just for its interstitial nature, but because of the time it affords for reflection and planning. Years ago I launched a personal initiative called the Personal Improvement Project, or PIP (no relation to Fallout 3's pip-boy 3000, although I'm half-expecting a real one of those to show up at CES this week). This is the time of year when I mourn all the stuff I didn't get done in the previous year, and plan furiously for ways to achieve more of those goals in the year ahead. 2009 was a wonderful year, a crazy year, productive in ways I hadn't planned for, but, alas, rather unproductive in the ways that I had. Read the classics? Not so much. Get out of debt? Yeah, no. Get back in shape? Hells naw. To a certain extent, that's the nature of the universe – life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, man plans and God laughs, yadda yadda yadda.

This year, though? This year things are going to be different.

What Happened?

First, why did things go so wobbly in 2009?

For starters, in 2009 I got married. In 2010, I'm not getting married. This should help. Don't get me wrong – I loved getting married, but I love being married much more. For starters, being married is much cheaper than getting married. Further (and, perhaps, better), it's much less stressful. These are two hallmarks of a good marriage – if being married is cheaper and less stressful than getting married, you're doing something right. (Note that this most likely ceases to apply once kids become involved.)

Second, in 2010 I was racing like mad to prepare for applying for Ph.D. programs at the end of the year. Again, not so much. I finally wound up postponing applying to Ph.D programs for another year, which was an intensely difficult decision to make (at this rate, I won't be Dr. Long until I'm in my 40s), but it was the right thing to do. Being a grad student is a wonderful state of existence, but it's not a very lucrative one, and stepping right into that after just investing a bunch of money in my wedding was going to be a nightmare. So, the whole doctorate project is going to have to be pushed back until the fall of 2011 or even 2012.

Third, I took on a lot in 2009. Not just the wedding (although that was big enough), but also a whole mess of travel (Singapore, Germany, Los Angeles, Brazil, Pittsburgh, Austria, Florida, San Francisco...!), joined the Executive Board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, took on a whole mess of projects at work (including writing my first video game) and am now in the middle of launching Playful Thinking, a new series of short game studies books published by the MIT Press which I'm co-editing with William Uricchio and Jesper Juul. Woof.

So, yes – all of this meant that life in 2009 was hectic as hell, and didn't leave a lot of time for reading, exercise, and not spending money on plane tickets. Fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it – but not at all a bad thing!

It's a new year now, though, and I'm reconsidering a number of the decisions I made in 2009. (Not the marriage. I'm keeping that one.) Primarily, this year I'm planning to buckle down and do a lot less traveling for conferences. I may do some more traveling for my consulting work (which is directly tied to the whole paying-off-debt thing) but for the most part I think this is the year I really need to write. On a larger scale, though, if you'll permit me to swipe and modify a line from Hollywood, it's starting to feel like 2010: The Year We Make Contact Up.

Need A Little Time To Make Up

The primary meanings of the phrase "make up" deal with either imagination or reparation, which is why this is such a timely phrase right now – and in some kind of weird micro-macro fractal reflection, this applies not just to me, but for all of us, particularly us Americans. For me it's going to be a year of writing (imagination) and paying down debts (reparation), but the whole world is going to have to use 2010 as a year of great imagination and reparation while we reimagine what the next wave of existence is going to be like, and as we pay off the disastrous debts we've incurred during the previous wave.

Right now, it feels like pretty much the whole damn planet is wondering the same things. What is the post-recessionary global economy going to be like? Is it reliant upon new energy sources and green-collar jobs? Is it a post-oil existence? Will America decline while other countries ascend? Will our new planetary society be more of a global village, will it be more hyperlocalized – or is it, in some weird anti-Venn diagram, simultaneously increasingly both? (Based on what I've been seeing during my travels, that gets my vote.)

Those of us in the media industries are worrying about slightly different things. How will the combination of recessionary economics and new technology change the media universe? (I've been thinking a lot lately about Borders' nosedive and the well-intentioned, if ill-executed, Barnes and Noble nook.) Further, in the 21st century, does 'digital' still have any great meaning? What happens when we push past that – what is 'post-digital', and what will post-digital media, entertainment and storytelling be like? One of the things that excites me about transmedia and comparative media studies is that they may be inherently post-digital; we no longer get so hung up on the explicit divide between the analog and the digital, but examine the unique advantages and affordances of each, which enables us to capitalize upon these features as they increasingly blend together – which sure seems to be the way we're going.

Profitability Sustainability Is King

One thing I wonder a lot about right now is whether the twenty-teens (damn, that sounds odd) will see a shift away from rampant profiteering and ridiculous, irresponsible spending and towards not just repaying our debts, but towards aiming for simpler, more sustainable levels of existence. One thing I've been wondering about for a long time is, simply, How much is enough? How does the cost of living in one part of the world compare to another? (I'm somewhat astonished to see that Boston isn't included in's map of the world's most expensive cities.) How much is a house really worth? How much is a thought really worth, or an experience, or one's reputation? How do we handle value in an experience economy, or a reputation economy? (For some insight into the latter, check out the Whuffie Bank, where you can find me at my usual handle.)

What is a model for sustaining a good, solid lifestyle with a decent amount of enjoyment, a relatively high standard of living, a sufficient amount of thought and reflection, a decent reputation, and so on?

It may be me thinking about these things because I'm in my early thirties now and am obsessing over things like families and houses and careers and so on, but it's clear that the 21st century models of success are not the same as the 20th century models. Do you have to have Gaimanesque levels of success as an artist to have a nice house and writing studio in the American midwest? Do you need to go all Hollywood and make ridiculous piles of cash to "make it"? Plus, what's an unsustainable business model for guys like me now? My model has always been to hit the trifecta of consulting-writing-academic, but given today's hyperaccelerated demands, is that still sustainable?

It's possible that the proper response (the "mind like water" response for you GTD-heads out there) to our current scenario is "less is more", or, to put it another way, "less is more sustainable." On my way into campus this morning, there was an episode of The Diane Rehm Show on WGBH where (I think) Allen Sinai, the chief global economist and president of Decision Economics, bluntly stated that we Americans have to get used to a lower standard of living. I think he may be right – as Trevor Butterworth and his 'slow word' manifesto, the 'slow food' movement, and scores of others seem to be indicating, we are on the brink of a society throwing up its hands and surrendering to the impossibility of the ever-increasing demands for more, more, more. The recession may be an overcorrection to the fiscal irresponsibilities of the last decade, but it may also be a chance for many of us to catch our breath and rethink what "enough" means to all of us. You don't need a McMansion to be successful, but you do need enough to live comfortably and, hopefully, put your kids through college. So what does that cost now? How do you get it? And how do you get it without going insane?

Making Up Is Hard To Do

Anyway, that's what I think 2010 (and maybe 2011 and even 2012) will be all about – more so than ever before, at both the micro and macro levels. How do we make up new answers to these questions, and how do we make up enough for our previous errors and indulgences to return to a more stable and sustainable footing? It's not going to be easy, but that's, again, the nature of the universe.

But life is good. And even if things get crazy, life gets better. Here's to a wonderful 2010 for each and every one of us. Onward and upward!

Post a Comment