6. Functional Benchmarking

My cards are very much at the forefront of this fieldwork endeavour, but as I map sectors and consider audiences, my own practice and my own identity is, of course, coming into full focus; I am not facelessly hiding behind my cards. Therefore a fundamental round of benchmarking for my own professional practice and identity is required during this fieldwork project also. So, in the same way that I have begun to competitively benchmark the material outputs for this fieldwork project (i.e. my cards, against other cards) it's time for me to functionally benchmark the immaterial for this fieldwork project (i.e. framing my practice in relation other people's practice...) A very recent MA tutorial has actually helped me begin to redefine, or at least rephrase what my professional identity is as a practitioner:

"Whenever you say creative generalist, I hear Systems Thinker." - Dr Matthew Lovett

In response to this new perception-candidate of my own practice, and one that I was seemingly pretty oblivious to, I have taken an exciting leap into the world of Systems Thinkers and in an effort to reconcile the true nature of my professional identity, as I compare where my practice aligns with these individuals and their own ideas and ways of working.

1). Ramon Llull.

I was first encouraged to cast my net way back to the late 1200s and take a glance at Ramon Llull.

The point of this being - mixed-disciplinary profiles existing many moons ago, with such individuals traditionally referred to during the renaissance as a Polymath.

Ramon Llull was a was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, Franciscan tertiary, and writer from the Kingdom of Majorca. He is credited with writing the first major work of Valencian literature. Recently surfaced manuscripts show his work to have predated by several centuries prominent work on elections theory. He is also considered a pioneer of computation theory, especially given his influence on Leibniz. This excerpt on Llull from Encyclopedia Britannica struck me quite hard:

"About 1272, after another mystical experience on Majorca’s Mount Randa in which Llull related seeing the whole universe reflecting the divine attributes, he conceived of reducing all knowledge to first principles and determining their convergent point of unity. Borrowing certain tenets from the 11th-century Scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury, he wrote his principal work; this is collectively known as the Ars magna (1305–08; “The Great Art”) and includes the treatises Arbor scientiae(“The Tree of Knowledge”) and Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus (“The Book of the Ascent and Descent of the Intellect”). Llull attempted to place Christian apologetics on the level of rational discussion, mainly to meet the needs of disputation with the Muslims. Llull used logic and complex mechanical techniques (the Ars magna) involving symbolic notation and combinatory diagrams to relate all forms of knowledge, including theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences as analogues of one another and as manifestations of the godhead in the universe. Llull thus used original logical methods in an attempt to prove the dogmas of Christian theology. The Ars magna’s apologetic applications receded into the background after Llull’s death, and it was as a universal system and compendium of knowledge that the Ars remained influential until long after the Renaissance."

Now, all of this speaks to me. This speaks to me big time. Ars inveniendi veritatis - the art of seeking truth. With his aims focused on reducing all knowledge to first principles and determining their convergent point of unity... I can't help but think about why I started Making Sense. Making Sense is the materialisation of the bonds between discrete creative disciplines; a system that aims to spotlight the interconnectedness and interdependency of those ingredients.

...I see what you've done there Matt, pointing me in the direction of Llull.

2). Buckminster Fuller.

Another historic reference, but one somewhat more relatable due to cultural proximity - the wonder that is Buckminster Fuller.

Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist. Fuller published more than 30 books, coining or popularizing terms such as "Spaceship Earth", "Dymaxion", "ephemeralization", "synergetic", and "tensegrity". He also developed numerous inventions, mainly architectural designs, and popularized the widely known geodesic dome. Dymaxion is one such materialised example of his systemic thinking - a portmanteau of the words dynamic, maximum, and tension; sums up the goal of his study - any dymaxion output was one that strived to secure "maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input." Totally out-there-but-efficient structure design, wonderfully wacky cars, radical living spaces. If described by WHAT he did, then "mad scientist" might pass the gums and over the lips of many people... but however, we can sum up WHY he did what he did using his own words:

"It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry." - Buckminster Fuller

A stunning quote from Fuller, and in respect to his own practice it shows that the resources he drew on were sensitively utilised for a much wider cause - the deciphering of systems for the betterment of society. For me, Buckminster Fuller is therefore a lovely example of what it looks like when you define yourself, not by WHAT you do, but WHY you do it.

3). Jaron Lanier.

Now, we're hitting the late end of the 20th and 21st centuries with none other than Jaron Lanier. Jaron Lanier is an American computer philosophy writer, computer scientist, visual artist, and composer of classical music. Considered a founding father of the field of virtual reality, Lanier (and Thomas G. Zimmerman) left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s, Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. In 2006 he began to work at Microsoft, and from 2009 has worked at Microsoft Research as an Interdisciplinary Scientist.

Interdisciplinary Scientist. Now That. Is. Badass.

...and there he is. The founding father of Virtual Reality. Sat there. Surrounded by musical instruments.

The following quote from an interview with The Guardian (again like all of the ones I'm pulling into this post here today!), really struck me:

"Lanier is often asked whether his interest in musical instruments came from the same place as his interest in virtual worlds. He has no doubt that it does. “I still just get a tremendous joy from learning new ones,” he says. “I have been working just now with an Ethiopian instrument called a Begena, an old harp. Probably similar to the one David played in biblical times. The way you have to hold it is interesting. That kind of thing enthralls me. It is like time travel… it brings your body’s movement into some kind of a connection with people who lived many centuries ago."

Again, as I drew the lines between Buckminster Fuller's WHATs and WHYs earlier, we can see that Lanier has a terrific grasp of the ability to do this. We can see there, that he understands WHY he is so interested in musical instruments. Not once I've I seen him traditionally' defined a musician though. Not really. Sure... he's known for his contributions as a composer absolutely (not something I'm trying to devalue or be disrespectful of here) but beyond that, he has successfully established an identity that is much more than this singular ingredient in his own systemic practice.

I share many of the same reasons for loving music. Distinctly for me, it's how they play powerful roles in Experience Design. Using them, listening to them, creating them. They are an artifact of a much bigger system for me.

Rayne. pyka_loop. Playces. They are a testament to this. But am I an Inventor? an App Developer? a Sculpture Maker? No. I'm starting to get the strong impression that there is a deeper definition sitting at play within my own practice here.

4). Henry Jenkins.

Lastly, we have Henry Jenkins.

Henry Jenkins is an American media scholar and Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

We're looking at a researcher and theorist here folks, and a stonking good one at that. It feels pretty strange to benchmark against a theorist, with me being someone who's so practically focused/driven, but his influence on the world in which my work plays out is totally unavoidable for me. Close to turn of the Millenium, Henry Jenkins coined a term in response to an emergent system that was taking root within the film industry - Transmediality. In more recent years, Jenkin's has gone on to clarify his definition of this within the world of New Media:

"Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story." - Henry Jenkins

Transmediality has since become more far-reaching, whereby narrative beyond film (e.g that of artists, and music producers, and other practitioners) draws on a pan-platform narrative or message delivery methods. With this, we see the powerful influence of a Systems Thinker - observations of the interconnectedness and interdependency of media formats and how narrative is dispersed throughout such networks, materialised by Jenkins, and drawn on my many new media practitioners in the last 10-15 years, has been a system that has radically reshaped the arts and media industries at large.

...and it's kinda funny. This is a somewhat heroic set of individuals to be benchmarking against. It's... bloody intimidating. But I cannot deny as I learn more about these Systems Thinkers (and Systems Thinking), what skills they held, and how they unified these within their own systems - for more wide-reaching purposes than the mere act of creating - I'm starting to see how this all seems to relate. I have always been a closet Systems Thinker... but NOT ONCE have I ever described myself as such. For one brief moment here, let's puff out the chest and join the line up to clear this up shall we? *Ahem*... Ramon Lull utilised Systems Thinking to unify all-knowledge in a 'perfect' system for truth. Buckminster Fuller utilised Systems Thinking in order to bring together disciplines for the betterment of society.

Jaron Lanier utilised his third eye for systemic perception and as a result, very comfortably defines all that he does - not by mechanism, but by meaning.

Henry Jenkins utilised Systems Thinking to establish Transmediality, stabilising our understanding the complex web of narrative in new media and their far-reaching implications.

...and (gulp) Leigh Davies, now utilising Systems Thinking to materialise his creative workflow in a passionate drive to normalise the role of the modern creative generalist. In times gone by (...only weeks ago even!) I would've assessed and triangulated my own practice against more traditional benchmarks such as the antiquated definitions of different creative disciplines (e.g. the musician, the illustrator, etc). But actually, as I've begun to reconcile my own professional identity as I establish and develop the cards for Making Sense - I've begun to fully acknowledge that I'm not WHAT I do, but I'm why I do it.

...and this new perception is not just relevant for makeup of my own practice, but for the development of Making Sense itself. After all, Making Sense is my effort to materialise my own brand of creative workflows; my system - and Systems Thinking is about synthesis not analysis, amongst many other things.

Now while I spent this past week or so learning more about these practitioners, a Medium article popped up in my searches that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. This article on the modern polymath did many things for me. It summarises the value of interdisciplinary creativity, it even echoed many of the proclamations of the freelances who filled out my target audience survey - but at its most personal - it also served as a reference point for something that kicked this entire postgrad process off back in September 2019 - my own impassioned dismissal of the antiquated jack-of-all-trades perceptions - bringing this entire process full circle, with a new sense of professional identity to boot. So given all of this... from now on Systems-Thinker, it is - this is going to take some getting used to! This acknowledgment gives me a wide set of tools I need to secure a firm understanding of, and bring them into the forefront of my practice... and not just in the practical work I create, but also for the ongoing development of Making Sense.

...and with that he grabbed his coat from the hook, and left, knowing that he would never return as the same person that he arrived.

Copyright © Leigh Davies 2020