Xiaoyoue’s order is horizontal. In his studio, a profusion of surfaces for sitting and lying have reduced the space for moving to the bare minimum: he has two chairs, two tables, a small orange sofa and a very decent bed. In between all of them, a black carpet with white stripes hides the floor underneath. We are meeting at night, sitting at the dining table where many bottles, some empty, some full, stand next to a bright-blue pack of Nanjing cigarettes. A red dragon printed on the box shines under the dim light of a lamp.
“I asked a friend to bring them from China.”
The conversation begins by recalling how, months ago, he stopped sketching on paper and switched to his iPad. “I should admit that it is very convenient,” he says while navigating through drawings and notes with the movement of one finger. Despite this, for his thesis he decided to switch back to paper.
“[With paper] it is a process: I record all my thoughts and feelings […] All my ideas. And with the time changing, more and more ideas and pages are used. But for the screen it is like this [he locks the screen], and then you open it, and it's always the same.”
It is strange to have the ability to turn off the things one is working on. In the digital space, the action of our hands, which used to be recorded in matter, is now saved as information. While holding a digital stylus and a dark plastic pen in his hands, Xiaoyoue notes how this transformation also has an impact on the tools we use.
“It is about how you feel the tool. How you use the tool. This is a tool when you do it on the tablet [holding the digital pen]. This is a tool when you draw on paper [now he holds the pen]. They are not the same: you can feel that.”
While the first one is smooth, the other one offers resistance. Resistance of touch, of course, but also of experience: with paper, accidents can happen, things can break, colours can vary unexpectedly. A conflict that is lost in the convenient and predictable world of Silicon Valley. For Xiaoyoue, there is no craftsmanship in the realm of the digital.
“For a craftsman is about the materials.”
The place that things have as reminders of our experience has also changed. While most “analogue” objects can become part of the material archive of our lives, reminding us of other times and spaces, computing devices very rarely do this.
“I like the paper book, I like to hold it, and also sometimes you can smell it. And when I go back to China, they will have a new place in a new room. Always with me. It is a recording of my career or something like that. Of my life. But with the tablet, when it is broken, it is broken. And maybe in two years I will have a new one.”
In fact, for an iPad to be useful it must remain updated and solid. Somehow, its digital flexibility is guaranteed by a fixed material consistency. A tablet is inert: it should only stimulate our senses when commanded. It should not have a sound of its own, a special temperature or a smell.
“Unless you never wash your hands.”
Neither should it have noticeable traces from its fabrication process: in case it does, they will be mere manufacturing defects. Therefore, we are unable to know which hands touched these objects before ours. In contrast, Xiaoyue discusses printed books: the bad smell of the 5-part Peter Zumthor collection, and the notes you can find in old specimens.
“One time, I was reading this Chinese novel [borrowed from a library]. And, I don’t know if it was a guy or a girl, wrote down his or her feelings. Sometimes, some notes are very stupid, but only that time I did agree with the feeling, and I could feel that in this world someone would have the same feeling as me. And if I had the opportunity, I would really appreciate to know her or him.”
For Xiaoyue, metadata is, perhaps, the closer digital equivalent to that anonymous annotation: with it, it is possible to know who created a file, who edited it and in which program. I tell him no one would be as excited about knowing that a file was edited in Photoshop as he was with the note in the book.
Now, we take a detour for discussing videogames. Until not so long ago, Xiaoyue could play online videogames non-stop for two weeks, twelve hours a day. I, an ignorant in these things, ask him about the reasons why it is easier to focus in videogames than in our architectural tasks. Short matches and the gratification of getting points when winning are good reasons, he says, but also the fact that you can get to know all the rules of the game in a short period of time.
“I know everything about this game, because it is just a game. Although it is very complex, [it is] not so complex as architecture. Architecture is also like a game, but it is a bigger one. A more complex one.”
Of course, there is something alluring in this simplicity. That is why the promise of an easier life is the subtext of any pitch in the world of technology and informatics. While I write this, I remember Steve Jobs presenting the first iPhone’s screen as the solution for the inconvenience of having to use the small keys of the Blackberry. Such irrelevancies build empires these days. It is not strange, then, to see people willing to dedicate their lives to this smaller, simpler world.
“More and more young people, they choose to ignore the bigger game, and they prefer the smaller one. In the small one, just like you said, it’s easier to get the excitement.”
At this point the topic seems exhausted, so Xiaoyue decides to make use of one cryptic metaphor. He tells me about the story of a man who has lost his son and sits next to his body for an entire night, without crying. Morning comes, and the jacket of the son, which is hanging outside the house, is hit by a ray of sunshine while the wind moves it. Only then, the father cries.
“His father resisted the death body for the whole night, but he could not resist something that evoked [his son].”
Confused, I ask Xiaoyue about the meaning of the tale. He answers that while the physical world can be very evocative, the digital realm is still very literal.
“I would say that that is why we want to build a relationship with a material world. If we have a digital device, we will never have such feelings. The digital stuff will never evoke something for our feelings.”
The conversation progresses. We discuss the dangers and implications of machines that are capable of transmitting feelings. Then, a digital apocalypse where people must choose if they want to live in the digital world of simplicity or the complex world of things.
“As long as you are a human being, you will like it [the physical world]. It is in your genes. The craftsman is part of our DNA.”
Guided by my chronic pessimism, I tell him about the possibility of future generations that ignore the physical world, not out of bad faith but as a product of ignorance. I tell him that is when our generation will really be old and outdated.
“What you think is very horrible.”
And so we kept talking, but I will not extend this account furthermore. There are things that should remain unsaid for the sake of mystery and brevity, and also out of respect for the reader who has arrived at this point after spending precious minutes reading the humble thoughts of two students.
Neither will I offer a poetic conclusion, as those do not belong to the world of friendly conversation.