Your professional career has been in technology but you also won a Mellon Fellowship in Literature to the University of Chicago. How do you juggle those two interests?
Well, I studied Physics as an undergraduate before doing the Master’s in Literature so in a sense I have been living in both worlds for a long time. Twenty years ago, there was a bigger separation between the technology world and the arts world. If you were in front of a computer screen — which I hated at first! — you definitely were not reading Dostoyevsky, or appreciating great painting or probably listening to anything other than very early electronica. So at that time I just had to make sure I spent enough time away from the screen, reading, writing, nourishing myself. Today, that’s all changed, and I can be working on a spreadsheet and have a stray line of poetry wander through my head, and in two seconds be re-reading a Wordsworth sonnet. Of course, to do any meaningful work, I need to focus on the task at hand, often for hours at a time, without being distracted. That just takes the discipline to give time to each piece of work that calls to me, whether it is a spreadsheet or a blog post or a poem, and that’s sometimes hard to do.
Is there a particular period/genre of literature that you are most attracted to?
Like most people, I’ve been drawn to different voices over the course of my life. As a teenager I loved science fiction — Asimov, the Dune series, Ursula Le Guin. Through my twenties I really got into visionary writers like William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Those writers, along with a few I met later, like Rumi, Hafiz and Rilke, are still my spiritual touchstones, and are by the bedside for the occasional 3:00am dark night of the soul. I went through long phases with Pynchon and Faulkner from which in many respects I have not recovered. These days I enjoy psychologically astute novelists, who can tell a great story while paying attention to all dimensions of their craft: word, sentence, paragraph, chapter: Alan Furst, Zadie Smith, Carol Shields, Michel Houellebecq, and Jess Walters are some favorites.
Are you currently doing any writing yourself?
I’m doing a blog with some writings on Buddhist dharma, literature and technology (zenteknica.com). That may turn into something more cohesive like a book, or not. I don’t have any specific end product in mind, but it feels good to write.
You ordained as a Buddhist priest. How did that come about and how does your spiritual path influence your work?
That’s a good question. My path progressed from an early love of science to a love of literature then to a love of the wisdom tradition of Buddhism. I’ve been practicing Zen for 25 years, and am now teaching, so in that sense my spiritual path is my work. But at the same time, I have been operating as a tech entrepreneur, which has its own unique culture and dynamics, which is very different from the world of the meditation center. At the most practical level, Zen encourages us to pay attention to whatever is going on in the present moment, especially if it is difficult or uncomfortable. That mindset really helps when I find myself getting antsy, say I am meeting with a potential funder who I feel is missing my point, or when I am talking with an engineer who I think is over-engineering the system. Zen practice is about cultivating what we call “Don’t Know Mind”, and when I bring that to bear in those meetings, I can see that maybe that potential funder is onto something, or maybe that engineer has uncovered some deep issues in our design that I was not aware of. Any spiritual path should help you cultivate patience, humility, sensitivity and curiosity, and I find all these things essential in my professional work.
Let me put in a quick plug here for a book I just finished, The Three Marriages: Re-imagining Work, Self and Relationship, by David Whyte. Whyte’s a poet with a wonderful, lyrical voice who has reflected deeply on these three human relationships we all negotiate. A friend quoted him on Facebook and I ran to get his book. He’s awesome.
Can you talk to us a little about FindMyAudience. What is it and what do you hope to achieve with this service?
FMA is a web service that helps Creatives (writers, musicians, filmmakers, artisans) find and engage with individuals and communities across the Social Web who are likely to appreciate their work. It’s a “market intelligence” platform for the Creative class. These days, large commercial enterprise marketing departments are doing a lot of smart social media analytics and engagement; we are building out a slice of those features, intuitively designed for Creative individuals who by their nature are typically not marketers, and may even be averse to marketing themselves.
Right now there is an ongoing revolution in how books, music, films and artisanal crafts are made, distributed and marketed. The Internet, e-books, self-publishing, and DIY digital platforms have dramatically increased the number of available works. The Social Web allows Creatives to build fan bases via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Goodreads, Soundcloud, Etsy, etc. — but the Social Web is a mixed blessing because the signal-to-noise ratio is diminishing. By helping Creatives find those people who are more likely to appreciate their work — we do this via analysis and matching of individual and community interests, styles and themes — we improve that signal strength and raise their chances of finding their audience.
In tech lingo, we are the complement to what’s known as “discoverability,” where distribution outlets like Netflix or Amazon help a consumer find works they might like based on what they have already liked. We help the works find the audience. Another cheeky way we talk about FMA is that we are like internet dating for art. We help writers and readers hook up.
When is FindMyAudience slated to be released to the public?
We’ll launch a beta to a selected group of writers and publishing industry personnel in Spring 2014. We’ll take feedback from the beta group of 5,000-10,000, and then open it up to everyone at some point after that. How soon will depend on how close we come with our initial design, but we are feeling pretty good about things right now!
Can writers help in any way?
We would love to hear from you on the FMA blog. Comment on what you’ve heard so far, weigh in on the surveys we will be putting out over the next few months, and sign up for the beta if you are interested. Writing is such a solitary activity, but all the hard work comes to fruition when your work finds a sympathetic reader. We think we have some experience, skills and tools to help make that happen. We’d love to hear what you think.