This is the eighth of our ten Tech Specs interviews. Previously, we talked to Microsoft's Andrew Kim.
Name: Jonathan Harris
Job title: Digital artist specializing in data visualization and storytelling
Background: I studied computer science at Princeton. Then it took me some time to figure out how to use computer science to do anything creative. I would say that really happened for me when I did a one-year fellowship in the interactive department at Fabrica, in northern Italy—that was the place where I started using computer code as a creative medium, in 2004.
A lot of my early work was in data visualization—in scraping data from the web and aggregating that data into custom interactive experiences, which at the time was a novel idea. I did a number of projects in my early twenties that used data from the Internet as a means of telling stories about humanity. Then, in my late twenties, I started doing more offline work—giving myself certain rules to follow and then gathering data in the real world as a result of those rules. That led to projects like The Whale Hunt and I Love Your Work.
On my 30th birthday, I started documenting my own life through a simple project of taking a photo and writing a short story each day. That was called Today. I continued it for a year and a half, and from that project came the feeds for Cowbird, which is a storytelling tool that other people can use to share their own life experiences in a really beautiful and ad-free format. I spent three years working on Cowbird; now that’s on auto-pilot and I’m getting back to making my own personal work.
Computer setup: I’ve always used MacBook Pros. I think I’m on my fourth or fifth generation now; I just got a new one about a month ago. And I always get the most souped-up one that you can get. It annoys me that I have to do that basically every three or four years—and I think it’s a really unethical design by Apple, which is basically manufacturing in obsolescence the moment your AppleCare warranty runs out.
Despite those gripes, I still end up buying another one every four years. So my current one is a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, and I hook that up to an external monitor.
That’s about it. I have a very clean and simple space that’s very quiet to work in—that’s important to me. I don’t listen to music when I work; I just like silence. And I always have a very big desk that I keep really clear, so it’s just my computer and few pieces of paper for taking notes and diagrams. I do a lot of work on paper; I’m constantly adding thoughts and ideas to sketchbooks, and now I have a huge collection of sketchbooks from the last 15 or 20 years.
How much of your workday do you spend in front of the computer? It varies a lot, because my work is half computer-based and then the other half involves expeditions and going out into the real world and photographing and writing.
When I’m in the computer part of the work, I’ll spend the whole day at my desk, working from 8 a.m. until midnight sometimes, if I have a long day. But then if I’m off doing a traveling-based project, sometimes I’ll go two or three weeks without even checking the Internet. And those are times that I really relish.
Jonathan Harris. Photo by Ryan Essmaker Harris's former workspace in Siglufjordor, Iceland. Photo by Björn Valdimarsson
Most used software: It’s changed over the years as platforms have changed. In the early 2000s, I used Flash a lot, and I don’t use Flash at all anymore. And then for a few years I was using Processing, which exports Java applets—and then Java applets stopped being supported by most web browsers, so I had to stop using Processing.
In terms of programs, I use TextMate for writing code. It’s pretty basic; it doesn’t do any completion, or at least I don’t have it set up to do that, but it’s simple and looks elegant. I use the Adobe products pretty frequently— specifically Lightroom, Illustrator and Photoshop. I use Google Docs for writing things. Gmail with Mac Mail. It’s pretty basic, actually. I’m not one of these people who’s super into the latest programs and programming language. I tend to use what I know and what I like.
Phone: I’m kind of a Luddite when it comes to this stuff. I think I got my first smartphone in 2012, which is kind of crazy. Now I have an iPhone 4S. It’s very slow and annoying to use because I keep updating the software; it’s absurd at this point.
Favorite apps: One app that I really like is called WriteRoom. It’s just a full-screen text editor where the entire screen is white and all you see are the words that you’re typing. I really like that for distraction-free writing.
Apps that are actually useful for your work: Pretty much just WriteRoom and TextMate. When comes to the phone—and I think this is one of the reasons I haven’t upgrade my phone—I have pretty strong opinions about how distracted so many of us are by our smartphones, especially when we’re out in social situations. I try to use my phone at a minimum; the only stuff I really ever do on my iPhone is use Maps, the calendar, e-mail when I have to send something on the go, and occasionally Safari to browse the web. I don’t really install apps on my phone because I just find that they’re going to set me up to distract myself. So I try to keep my phone pretty minimal, and that’s one of the reasons that having an older phone is fine with me.
Other devices: I do have an iPad that I use occasionally when I’m reading. If I’m creating books, then I do a lot of reading in the evening, and if I want to quickly check something that I’m reading about, I can just grab my iPad, Google it and then put it down. I find that it doesn’t suck me in the way my computer would.
Other machinery/tools in your workspace: I have a Cannon 5D Mark II camera, which has been a great tool for me over the years. And I have an Edirol sound recorder, which I use when I’m working with audio
Tools or software you’re thinking of purchasing: I’m thinking of possibly getting a smaller camera. I love the 5D Mark II, but it’s just so enormous and heavy to carry around that I end up not bringing it as much as I would like. I’ve also heard a rumor that Canon might be coming out with a smaller, more lightweight cousin to the 5D at some point soon, so I’m keeping an eye on that. And I don’t plan to get an Apple Watch!
I Love Your Work is an interactive documentary about the everyday lives of sex workers.
How has new technology changed your job in the last 5–10 years? I’ve really enjoyed GitHub for doing source control on my code and collaborating with others—I started using that with Cowbird around 2011. Google Docs has also been great. That’s where I put everything now, and I find that it’s really easy to collaborate and share with people, and everything is saved in the cloud, so I really like that.
When it comes to new tech, are you a Luddite, an early adopter or somewhere in between? Definitely not an early adopter. Possibly a Luddite—but probably somewhere in between. I just use new things when they seem like they’re going to be really useful, or when I’m forced to by the ecosystem changing.
For instance, giving up Processing was a sad thing because it’s such a beautiful programming language. It was simple and it’s very fast; you can output beautifully complex, interactive experiences. But then web browsers just stopped supporting applets. So you’re forced to use things like WebGL, which is slower and more complicated to write and more fussy and less standardized. But at least it’s an open standard, so you know it will be around for a lot longer. I tend to change my tools only when it’s absolutely necessary; otherwise, I stick with things that work.
Do you outsource any of your tech tasks? Not really. With Cowbird, I have one engineer that I work with to help with some of the backend server stuff. Other than that, I tend to do everything myself, although that’s something I’m trying to change. I’ve always been kind of a control freak when it comes to all aspects of my process, and I think that it’s limited me in the amount of work I can produce. I’m about to start a new collaboration, though, so that’s something I’m going experiment with loosening a little bit.
What are your biggest tech gripes? The biggest is the one I’ve alluded to a couple of times, that for those of us who are making work for the web and have been for many years and love the web as a medium, it can be very frustrating how formats become obsolete and no longer accessible. I have a number of projects that I’ve made over the years that are no longer accessible unless you download weird plugins and things like that, and that’s frustrating as a creator. I guess the lesson to learn there is to use open formats as much as possible—and this is one of the reasons I’ve really been opposed to building apps. With Cowbird, we made a decision not to develop an app, and I’m pretty sure I’m not ever going to make apps for my projects. I know that it has a short-term cost in usage, but I just feel like apps are destined for obsolescence, the same way CD-ROM and Shockwave formats were ten years ago. So the role of obsolescence in technology is something that’s frustrating.
I’m pretty sure I’m not ever going to make apps for my projects. I know that it has a short-term cost in usage, but I just feel like apps are destined for obsolescence, the same way CD-ROM and Shockwave formats were ten years ago.
What do you wish software could do that it can’t now? That’s such an open-ended question. I mean, there are so many things: I wish software could be more true to life; be more capable of expressing ambiguity; be a more nuanced medium for self-expression without all of these layers of abstraction. I wish it could be more direct, the same way a pencil is direct—you just make a mark and there is the mark, whereas with software there are all of these steps you need to go through in order to make a mark. Especially when it comes to code languages, I think there is tons of room for improvement.
Harris's log-cabin workstation in the Oregon mountains, the site of his worst tech disaster. (Read his daily story from that day.)
Finally, we've all had instances of software crashing at the worst possible moment, or experienced similar stomach-churning tech malfunctions. Can you tell us about your most memorable tech-related disaster? Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of those. The worst one happened shortly after I turned 30. I had been in New York for six years, and when I turned 30 I moved out to Oregon to this little log cabin in the mountains, at 4,000-foot elevation. I was there through the winter, so there was, like, four feet of snow and I would see another person once every three or four days when I drove into town to get groceries. I had a very slow satellite-internet connection, and I was building Cowbird there—that’s where I started.
I was there for four and a half months or so, and at that point I was not using source control for my code—I basically just had the entire source code for Cowbird on my laptop. And one dark, winter night, my computer just wouldn’t turn on. I got this black screen with white MS-DOS–looking prompts. The hard drive was just dead. And I hadn’t backed up any of my data.
The nearest Apple Store was in Eugene, a four-hour drive away down the mountain through treacherous passes and icy roads. So I got in my car and drove down there and dropped it off. They told me it was going to be a few days to try and repair it, and see if they could salvage the data, so I drove all the way back up into the mountains and had a few days there without my computer, unsure of what was going to happen with it. Then I went back down to Eugene to see what they could do. It turned out that they were able to replace the hard drive and salvage some of the data, but some of the code was lost also. That was a frustrating experience but also a good lesson in backing up data, and I’ve been meticulous about it ever since.
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This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.