World Building

This Could Still Be a Movement: Why Mars Needs a Creative Director

Reggie James and Eugene Angelo

September 7, 2022

On May 4 + 5, 2022 we gathered for the Baukunst Creative Technologist Conference at The Interval at The Long Now–a prominent foundation for long term thinking in San Francisco–to share projects, processes, and new areas of inquiry. Expanding upon his recently published essay, ROLE: CREATIVE DIRECTOR || COMPANY: USA, Reggie James, CEO of Eternal, and Eugene Angelo, Creative Director of ANGELO, engaged in a dialogue about why Mars needs a creative director. They posit that Mars is the only image expansive enough to break us out of the saturation of the internet age, get us off apathy island, and offer design principles for Mars that might help us reimagine Earth.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for readability.

REGGIE JAMES: So as always, when you go into album mode, you'd like to change the title right before the launch. So the new title of this talk is, “This Could Still Be a Movement.” I was inspired by many, many, many texts between me and Eugene–we're about to really dive into the future of creative directing Mars. What that means, why that's important, and why it's also extremely not a joke. So, off the bat, Mars is an image. And we have to understand what an image does. What Mars really is.

EUGENE ANGELO: A lot of our conversations over the last few days have been around how to break the apathy we're currently experiencing, especially in youth culture. I think it’s largely to do with a lack of images to truly energize people. So, when we talk about Mars, we're semi-serious, you know? Maybe in 10-20 years, we'll be going out there, and there will be creative decisions that are being made, and it's important that we think about those creative decisions.

But for the most part, Mars is really a point of inspiration. It's a direction to move in. A framework. An image is like a boat. We're leaving an island, which is the current era we're in, and the boat is the means of getting to that next place. So it's not an end, it's a means to an end. What we need to do is get on a boat and leave this island, because if we continue to stay on the island, it will be overpopulated and ravaged for all it has.

Humanity has to keep moving forward with new images and keep building new boats. We can get a broad view throughout history of how this takes us up to today, which is that the last boat we sent out, as a grand image, was the boat of globalization: a human project that was super ambitious and got us out of the early industrial period in Europe. So that grand image of globalization, which includes everything associated with modernity, modernism–and later on, Silicon Valley at the tail end–brought us to the present day. I think 2020 was when that image died. Once an image becomes real, once what we've thought about becomes truly manifested and becomes our current reality, the image is dead. We're at the island, but there's no longer a boat that we’re on. There's no direction anymore. The danger of being there for too long, as we said, is ultimately, stagnation and exploiting that island too much. Just really festering there. We need to keep moving. I think that's integral to how we preserve a good balance of optimism in the human consciousness.

So yeah, this is a broad view. I think 2020 specifically was this moment where you really sensed that globalization had peaked as a concept. Our supply chains started to break down. We were now truly, densely connected through the internet. Everyone had to adopt zoom, and everything else. It really felt like the image, this grand project of let's connect the world, let's create a global standard - that was truly complete at that moment.

Here's a good example of this on a kind of more specific level, which is this Apple advert from 1987 - so it's about 35 years old now.

What's interesting about this image is that it's now our reality. You can look at every detail in this image. It's very deliberate. It's not a fluke: there's a bed in the corner–it's about the proximity of work to sleep and leisure. In the corner, you see a picture of the man’s family in the background. He's not wearing a suit, which is a really key detail in 1987. He's got a cat–a bit of companionship there. There's a whole lot of detail in the man’s proximity to the city, a sort of prospect refuge with the grand overview of the city.

Everything in here is a vision. It's an image. I think something interesting about images, not just on a broad scale of how we create trajectories for humanity, is that images are really the basis of companies, too. One insight we've had is that with hardware companies like Apple, the real innovation, we think, is actually in the image. The hard work is in making that image real. That's where the real hours go in. But this vision really condenses all of that and drives it forward. A lot of people have their own theories on this, but people say Apple might be stagnating or has reached its peak. I think that's because ultimately, this image they created 35 years ago has become real, and that's a great achievement, but they haven't set out a new boat - and we can apply that back to humanity on a broad scale.

It even goes back to how an ambitious person lives life, right? It's like, you set out a grand ambition or goal that you see for yourself, and once you're there, you feel a bit ripped off. It's all about setting off new boats, essentially. What's key is that Mars is not the island. “We're going to Mars” is the boat. It's a vehicle for thought. It's a vehicle for moving forward. It's not necessarily the destination.

REGGIE JAMES: Yeah, once you've achieved that image, you kind of have this sinking feeling that it's over. This quote from Elias Canetti, I think really solves what we're discussing: “A crowd exists as long as it has an unattainable goal. The image is acquired and there is nowhere else to go.” Setting off images allows crowds to condense their energy somewhere.

This book Canetti’s book Crowds and Power is one of the most important books, I think, and is disgustingly non-existent within tech discourse. Goal equals crowd. Crowd is what scale is. I think what we're experiencing a lot of now, is the dispersing of scale into decentralization, and all these things that are kind of crumbling to bits. So we need new images. We're gonna repeat that several times. But I think what's really exciting about new images is that we can learn from the previous ones.

A very big critique is people thinking Mars is some colonization dream. But the really nice thing is there's no one there. The European story is one of coming over to land where there are people, you know what I mean? And so there are ramifications upon ramifications of what that produced industrially and what it produced also from a Eurocentric, white-centric viewpoint of industry, society, beauty. And what's exciting about Mars is that none of that is there.

Therefore, we have to think about where our spawn point is, and our spawn point is the internet, which is a hyper global, intercultural, colorful experience that at scale is larger than any one nation. It's very post-nation-state. So the key point is that the image has to be larger than the origin. And I think, because we have probably the largest image today, which is the internet and globalization, what happens is any new work, any image that is smaller than that, it kind of just gets sucked up into the hall of mirrors. I like to use the analogy of mirrors, because the internet and technology serve as these great reflection points back to who we are as individuals. And what gets really frustrating for a lot of people with the internet, I think, is that they see themselves so often, and their flaws, with nowhere else to put that energy. When you get stuck in that mirror of looking at self, and the flaws, we have culture wars. This is why Mars as an image is the only thing really larger than the internet right now. And this mass, global, unified sense of self.

EUGENE ANGELO: Yeah, and a story arc is really a trajectory. It's this huge buildup of momentum. You can't just go from a horizontal point A to point B. It has to be this summit we're reaching for. What is a sufficiently big enough image relative to the origin point of the internet, which is already such a vast thing? What is sufficiently big enough that we get this overall summit feeling and the sensation of really needing to push for something? I think that's the issue right now, especially on the internet, when we think of the modern crises we're facing. With the internet as the spawn point, the origin point, none of these create trajectories that are big enough.

It’s a terrible thing to think about, but solving climate change as a story arc is a regression from something as large as the internet. So we need to think way bigger to actually start to solve those problems and collectivize people. Mars is the only image big enough – we’re open to suggestions – but I think it might be the only one for now. It's the way to mobilize us to think bigger and break through this apathy. The hall of mirrors on the internet is Apathy Island. Nothing else is big enough to motivate us to go and build a boat and set it off.

REGGIE JAMES: Apathy Island is the thing that when we think about what it means to be a Creative Technologist, it’s what we have to break. When we're not producing images that are in that resonant interval, I think we actually just exacerbate the problem. For a bit of critique, the main image on environmentalism is of Greta yelling at adults. That doesn't really inspire any sort of movement towards solving that issue. And then you even get, let's just say they're global peers of youth, then adding to the critique of that image itself. And in creating that larger image (of Mars), you create the ability to solve these very big things that we view as issues, as the byproduct of our movement.

EUGENE ANGELO: So the crux of what we're saying here is that instead of focusing on issues directly, focus on the thing that’s going to collectivize people. It’s best to focus on the story arc. The thing that is going to really give people a sense of collective purpose. Just bringing people together in a more positive, optimistic way will create byproducts that will solve problems. This isn't about utopia. This isn't utopian thinking. It would be utopian thinking if we were saying Mars was the final destination. But it absolutely isn't. Mars will probably be bad too. I mean, there'll be bad things that’ll fuck it up. It's probably not going to be amazing. But the point is to launch a boat off from there as well. To keep moving. That's the real premise.

With Mars as a thought vehicle, we can start to imagine, “Okay, what will we put up there?”, and we can think outside of the systems that really hinder our thinking on Earth. We'll go into a whole set of design principles that we can use for actually building things there. But, ultimately, it's really important to just think beyond our current systems. We have some starting points for anyone who wants to start thinking about this stuff. These are some key ideas that, based on the mistakes of the last image, we can use to move forward. We can learn from those mistakes.

The first is this idea of a post-true-self era. The real disease of the Western world is the idea of the true self. The true self is the idea that is foundational to the current consumerist economy we're in. It's the carrot on the end of the stick that we endlessly chase. As soon as we consume something, it gets us slightly closer to the idea of who we want to be. It's all about ego formation. I think we're locked into this type of economy because it's so profitable. But Mars is actually an opportunity to reorient our economy around fluid, ever-changing identity and remove the idea of identity as a fixed construct. I actually think this is a more abundant economy, because we have to think about how much creative restriction there is due to something not fitting the criteria we have of what or who we are, and how much we don't feel comfortable with being something because maybe it doesn't fit our image of ourselves. Or, you know, not creating something because it doesn't fit our image of ourselves, or not collaborating with someone because they don't fit the criteria of who we believe we are, and who we're supposed to hang out with or work with. The amount of withheld energy that results from the idea of the fixed self is a serious problem, and we should think about it. To put it in very Silicon Valley terms: the multi-identity era is a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity.

REGGIE JAMES: Mars, and the vehicle-of-thought-that-is-Mars, is going to look far more like a string of Vatican cities tied to Singapores than it’s going to look like, you know, the United States plot on Mars with Little Italy next to Tokyo Town. Those aren't the structures we're going to orient spatially around.

And when you then think about what it means to be post nation-state, post-language and again, you take that mirrored view, you really start to look at things like immigration reform very differently. And you start to see how silly some of these things we put up are. So taking, again, this vehicle for thought of, What does it mean to be post nation-state on Mars? It allows you to think about what it means to be post nation-state right now, and all the generative opportunities of that.

EUGENE ANGELO: What's important here, too, is that this isn't about removing cultural nuance. It's not about removing the richness of language or the richness of culture. It's about re-orienting our borders around things that aren't violent. I mean, the current issue really is that culture and language are reinforcing violent borders that exclude and restrict people. The purpose of a border should be to appreciate the flavor of one place from the other. It should remind us of the beauty of nuance, the richness of the world, right? I think we need to move past borders as a tool for economic exclusion and ultimately, barriers to occupational mobility. By thinking about these things in the form of images, in the form of ideas, we can just produce mock-ups. We can start to now think, Wait, what if we just brought that here (earth)? What if we applied that here? Then we get these byproducts.

REGGIE JAMES: And there is really no excuse for monoculture thinking. Allowing yourself to be post-monoculture opens you up to the same thing as being post-nation-state. It’s the beauty of exploring what’s on the other side without there being a hard division or sense of violence. So where do we start?

EUGENE ANGELO: And we absolutely should have it as a priority that we involve everyone in the conversation about what the next image is and where we're going.

So then, what is a creative director? “Creative director” is a funny term, because it got co-opted by every kid on Earth over the last 10 years. I think creative directors summarize a broader culture. There'll be a broader culture that exists and a creative director understands what that culture is about, knows the key references, and is able to summarize it for an outside market that doesn't necessarily have the time to appreciate that broader culture for its full nuance, but does have the time to experience it through the condensed lens of the creative director. “Creative director”, as a job, has a lot to do with simplifying the world where we don't have the time and capacity to understand everything.

One problem with this is creative directors taking credit for broader culture and eliminating those large groups of people that play a part in something. We're not about that. This is more about open referencing. Everything you make should point in the direction of a reference or something else that's going to take people deeper. So if you are curious, you can go deeper. You can find more things.

REGGIE JAMES: It's big Ecosystem vs. Egosystem. (1) No reference point to go off of, that’s Egosystem. That's I am the synthesizer therefore you consume me, and I give purpose to your identity. Ecosystem is, I'm showing you every line that I pulled from, and I'm giving you access to every single person. One of our favorite talks is Tremaine (Emory), Asyde, Heron (Preston) and Virgil (Abloh) and it's because you really realize it's not Virgil just being Virgil. It’s Virgil in community with his peers and deriving reference from peers and everything that goes off to. There's a really big myth of the genius founder. While there are some exceptional people, it’s always about the 80 people that actually allowed something to materialize. And allowing that reference, those lines are being drawn in the ecosystem. Not doing that has been one of the failures of the current state of production.

EUGENE ANGELO: Yeah, in the world that I come from specifically–making T-shirts and album covers–I think a lot of what I saw wasn’t pointing in the direction of something deeper. A lot of kids are in that situation where they have unlimited curiosity, but they’re not being given the codes. I think what's key to this is just always pointing to something else, always leaving something where, if you have that curiosity, you can go deeper. Then, we'll get more nuance. We'll get more creative directors, because there'll be more people with more knowledge. There'll be more people who can create these images and do it well, and not just be derivative. That's the real issue. There are no reference points. People are just looking at surface stuff all day, and they're just gonna keep making surface stuff.

So these are some places to start from. We wrote down a bunch of ideas. You know, like, Insert thing on Mars here. Have fun with it, right? We've played around with these ourselves and reached new conclusions based on the principles we put forward earlier. Things that are actually deeply relevant and would really transform things on this planet.

REGGIE JAMES: Yeah, tell us your favorite ones. Design it. Use Midjourney. Send it to us.