2016 has been a bit of a wtf year


This had been gearing up to be a bit of a wtf year from the beginning, but I admit the last few weeks still took me by surprise. Getting my first book deal early this year was unexpected, and nice, but the rest of the year has often been strange and downright depressing. David Bowie? Prince? Leonard Cohen? I don’t even. There was a joke going around twitter about how we’re in the wrong timeline, and yeah, some days it feels that way. Come on, Harry August! Wind it back!

Adland, at least in Australia, has always been fairly hipster and small-l liberal, and on election day, the office pretty much ground to a halt. The little old lady from the clinic downstairs came up during lunch to get our signatures to stop the nearby netball court from being rezoned for development while CNN was playing in the communal kitchen, and well. Thanks, CNN. You scared the hell out of a nice little old lady. I was still processing, days on. Guess that’s what life in the echo chamber does.

Apologies in advance for this long and meandering post.

Echo Chamber #1: Growing Up With Wtf

My favourite tutor from design school sent a survey yesterday, and one question was “What was the most important thing you learned in Uni?” Pushing design thinking/solving/storytelling/whatever has been a pretty popular narrative in the creative industry, which is in itself a very special kind of echo chamber, albeit a shiny and aesthetically tasteful one. More on that later. I considered writing a troll response to the question and hoping she couldn’t guess who I was, but in the end I wrote a response that wasn’t really completely correct anyway. The most important thing that I learned in a university wasn’t from design school, but much earlier, in law school. Law school taught me about civil rights, about human rights, about environmental law. Law school taught me about the Indigenous Australian struggle for land rights, about how justice is defined, about what it means, about what it should mean. In effect, law school taught me what had been missing from my state-controlled Singaporean education: it taught me idealism, and because of that I can never really regret having gone to law school. Even though I was placed there by the Asian parental units, and legal practice itself gave me a minor drinking habit for a few years.

Singapore’s not really an autocracy, but it’s not really a democracy either, at least, not by the way Westerners would understand it. It’s a massively successful country for its size and lack of natural resources, a large part because of the vision and will of one person. We have a great health care system and sane gun laws. We have great food! And our libraries are awesome. On the other hand, sodomy’s still illegal, marital rape is mostly legal, and we recently jailed a 17 year old kid for posting YouTube videos criticising the government on charges of “wounding religious feelings”. Our Press Freedom ranking is behind Russia. That’s right. The day after the US elections felt surreal, watching my Singaporean friends encouraging Americans to come to Singapore. Guys, our government has a 0 refugee intake policy! Besides, it’s not like they’d keep the rights some of them are afraid of losing if they come over.

Also, Singlish is very hard to pick up unless you grew up listening to it, just saying.

Did you guys see that Quartz article? It’s great reading. A friend once asked me, why do I keep my Singaporean citizenship even though I’m living permanently in Australia? Eh. For all that I only go home once a year, I do love my country still–just that I want to do it with my eyes open.

Besides, Australia’s another interesting case. I live in Melbourne, which is very hipster and a Green Party stronghold. I love it here. This weekend we have, separately, a fried chicken festival, a gin festival, a Spanish festival, a pinoy festival, and a hipster food festival, all at once. But Australia itself is technically centre-right. Few years ago Australia voted in the Liberal Party (which is centre-right, yes, very confusing), which gave us an embarrassment of a PM called Tony Abbott. We now have another PM because of the knife fight that is Australian politics, but that’s beside the point. My partner voted Liberal. So did most of his firm. It’s a funny thing sometimes, living with someone whom you don’t agree with politically. Also, we’re both lawyers, which means arguments often end in settlement, if at all, and everything you’ve ever done or said can be dredged back up as evidence, Exhibit A. We went to the same law school, and clearly didn’t pick up the same lessons. Often you have to just politely make your case, and if not, agree to disagree. Remember, Scalia and Ginsburg were great friends:

“If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.” -Scalia J

I’ve had my disagreements with friends. We don’t always convince each other, but I admit the one time I’ve seriously considered no longer talking to a friend over something he said to me was when said friend told me that he didn’t feel there was a point in reading any SF&F (Really!?). I don’t understand people who feel the need to harass people they don’t agree with, or post death threats, or make name and shame lists–I’m looking at you, fandoms. Bullying is ugly and is a form of violence, which has never been for me a constructive response to anything. It’s OK to be angry. But go high, not low. Try to be kind, not cruel.

Echo Chamber #2: Relearning the wtf

That brings me to adland’s response to the last week. Unsurprisingly, some of us have decided that it’s partly because Clinton had bad advertising. Designers have already started floating ideas about whether design thinking could help. And that brings me to the echo chamber taught in design school. It was a bit like being taught a version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the Answer, instead of being 42, was “design”. Don’t get me wrong. Everything in your life is technically designed, from the Macbook I’m using to type this to the chair I’m sitting on. Design plays a big part in people’s lives, generally. But design saving the world? Hmm. Still. Whatever works. Happy to be proved wrong.

Law school taught me idealism, and legal practice taught me cynicism. Design school, fun as the three years were, didn’t change that. If anything, I think it’s made me more cynical. I was the only person in my class who regularly read newspapers. You can’t really save the world if you don’t engage with it, or if you only look at the bits of it that Facebook’s algorithm chooses to show you. “Designers don’t read” was a running joke in design school, and I think I was the only person not laughing.

Echo Chamber #3: Escaping the wtf

If anything, these couple of weeks have shown me that I’ve been in yet another echo chamber all along. I think we all have work to do, no matter where we live. Good luck.