In a fascinating profile of director Guillermo del Torro in the February 7, 2011 New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski writes:
Del Toro often spends months planting “visual rhymes” in his movies; the tunnels that Ofelia travels through in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for example, all have “feminine apertures.” What others call eye candy del Toro calls “eye protein.”
and then, later:
For several months, del Toro said, he had been working on the dragon. “It will be a very different dragon than most,” he said. He proposed discussing it over lunch. He went upstairs to retrieve several notebooks. “I keep my journals locked in a safe in my bathroom,” he said abashedly, as if this had been the afternoon’s sole display of eccentricity. As we left, I noticed that several boxes of eye protein from Amazon—comic books, DVDs, model kits—had been tossed onto the floor before Sammael’s gaping maw.
I thought of this tonight, walking home through the lively Saturday night streets of Kreuzberg, on my way home from the Cognitive Cities Conference after-party.
Why, after all, would I, who spends his days buried deep underground in the Drupal mine, feel it important to attend a conference centering on such esoterica as “Urban Mobility,” “Sensing Infrastructure” and “Cognitive Buildings.” These are not, much as I might wish, the stuff of my day-to-day life. And even if they were, the talks at the conference, boiled down, were little more than (beautifully illustrated, cogently argued, well-presented) sermons advocating for particular approaches to the use or misuse of digital data in an urban context.
In other words, if I had to account for my presence to an employer, given my daily remit, I would be hard pressed.
But here’s the thing: Cognitive Cities – or really any conference worth attending – isn’t really about what’s up on the stage.
What happens up on stage is, to use del Toro’s phrase, eye protein. And as protein is digested into amino acids such that we might thrive and grow, so is eye protein digested by the mind and re-synthesized into new ideas and connections and relationships that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
So it’s important that what’s up on stage is rich and interesting and passionately presented. It’s not particularly important, however, that it shoots directly into a personal nerve.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that sitting in a room with 300 generally like-minded people listening to someone talk about, say, “norm creating structures,” might, despite all immediate evidence to the contrary, be a necessary pre-condition for “seasoning” the mind and creating an environment where learning, accepting new points of view, developing novel ideas, and meeting new people, is more likely to happen.
All of which is a phenomenon likely familiar to regular church-goers: surely it can’t be the labyrinthian stories of the Sunday sermon that are the attraction; I assume, rather, that it’s the shared experience, the exercise for the mind, the doorway to the spirit propped open ever-so-slightly more, that is what’s really important.
And I can attest that, after eight hours praying in the church of the cognitive city, I did indeed emerge “seasoned.” In amongst my notes – “find out more about the Välkky traffic sensor,” “what does normative mean, anyway,” “there is no structure, only information,” “cities are serendipity hubs,” “the acoustics of old sounds” – are a dozen things I want to run right home and try out.
New projects. New takes on old projects. Things I’d forgotten I never finished. Things I’d forgotten I never started. Some of them directly inspired by the conference, but many of them not all all related and yet things that came to me nonetheless, what with the spirit doorway being open and all.
Overcoming day-to-day inertia is incredibly difficult: comfortable patterns are, well, comfortable. And yet to grow requires seeing new patterns, and seeing new patterns means overcoming the inertia to not seeing new patterns. And one way to get there is to change the place, change the stage, and to consume massive amounts of eye protein.
And that is why, on this cold weekend in February, I find myself in Berlin with a bunch of city hackers talking about how to make the sentient city.