The core of San Francisco might be changing, but sometimes when the fog kisses the ground, the dusk adds a pinkish hue to the evening and the chill in the air makes you hug your coat a little tighter, you know this is still the city that stole Tony Bennett’s heart. It is still the place that Sam Spade called home. As I walked down the Embarcadero earlier this evening, the majesty of the San Francisco Bay and the shadow play on the horizon between Fog and fading light made me realize how wonderfully unique and original San Francisco can be.
Originality has been on my mind, lately. I keep asking the question: can we be original in this time of a networked society? How does one be original, and not be influenced by what is happening around us, all the time? We are being bombarded by information, and even unknowingly, we are getting influenced by it. We are living in a remix society, that is remixing so fast that at times we forget what is original. Today it is hard to tell what is an original news source and what is not. The headlines don’t really mean anything. People repurpose the original, profit from it, and then try and penalize the original version. It hard not to feel disgusted by companies such as Xiaomi, whose only originality is their rampant blatantness.
How to find originality in a “networked society” is on my mind, because I have recently come across three individuals who have been original for such a long time. During a conversation for my new art project, Pi.co, Frank Clegg, a US-based bag maker put it best when he said, “If I make something different, then I don’t really have any competition. Either people like what I do, or they don’t like what I do.” Such a simple statement, but so hard to implement, because many find so much comfort from hiding in the herd.
While reading this story about Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons (“like some boys”) and its CEO Adrian Joffe, in Bloomberg Pursuit magazine, I learned a little bit about Joffe’s wife and founder of the brand, 72-year-old Japanese reclusive designer Rei Kawakubo. She has been immensely original for nearly 45 years and her clothes still leave you gaping. The New Yorker once wrote: “Kawakubo doesn’t have a story line, insisting, not always plausibly, that she works in a vacuum of influence and a tradition of her own creation.”
The pressure to consistently be original must be quite amazing. The New York Times recently caught up with iconic chef Ferran Adria to find out what he is up to since shutting down his restaurant, El Bulli. They also wanted to find out why did he shut down the restaurant — was it money troubles? Or family squabbles? Adria was “was scared of repeating himself” according to the Times. “Can you imagine this pressure? You cannot.”[ I also am bemused by the fact that Chef Adria is an ambassador for Telefonica, a phone company making society even more networked.]
The pressure to be original within our connected society, has to be even greater than in our unconnected days. We are living with what designer Mark Rolston, founder of design firm Argo Design, calls “quantum consciousness” which essentially means that “many of us are coming up with similar solutions given similar conditions and a shared experience.” Just as this collective has its benefits, it also has its downsides, for it quickly reinforces the “safe” route in our minds.
As my walk along the Embarcadero came to an end, I could see the outlines of a lot of new buildings sprouting up, unoriginal in design, uninspired, and only there to take away from the originality of San Francisco’s skyline. They lack the dare-do of the Pyramid Building. They are just towers of glass and steel, lacking permanence and presence. Unfortunately the San Francisco of tomorrow, might be less magical than its past, because there isn’t anyone who is daring enough to be original in shaping its cityscape.
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios writing in his book, Creativity Inc., put it best: “It’s easier to plan derivative work—things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.”
January 3rd, 2015/ San Francisco