From Our Contributors: A Conversation Between Aaron Dignan & David Dewane
It’s the day before we opened Work / Space STORY opened to the public and our collaborators, co-curator Aaron Dignan of The Ready was joined by contributor and architect David Dewane for a day of prep and press. As the day progressed some of us at STORY overheard their conversation and interrupted – “we’re learning so much, this should be an interview for the blog!” There is an authentic vulnerability to this conversation that we found quite fortunate to witness and hope you do too!
David Dewane (David): Can you tell me a fun fact about yourself that is not available online?
Aaron Dignan (Aaron): I went to first grade dressed as Batman for six straight months. The school called in my parents and said that maybe I needed therapy. My parents said, “He is who he is.”
David: He’re is a Kantian follow-up question. Should the Batman kill the Joker to prevent him from endlessly breaking out of Arkham Asylum and killing/terrorizing/maiming endless victims?
Aaron: No, he should not kill the Joker. If you kill the Joker, you create the negative space that gets filled with another Joker. Plus, you’ve got blood on your hands and you compromise your values in the process. It’s like saying you’re going to kill all the evil in the world. You can’t do it, and what’s worse, is that you actually just create more evil by doing that. So, as Batman, I can tell you the answer is “no.”
David: Who are some of the people who shaped the way that you think?
Aaron: The first person that comes to mind is Garrison Keillor. It’s the power of spoken word, which is an oral tradition that we have fundamentally lost, but that is deep in our DNA. As a species, we learned and connected through the story around the campfire. The wisdom of elders delivered through story is completely lost in America in my opinion. Keilor was one of the last few great voices who could weave a tale on the fly, about anything, with a lesson, and engage everyone. I wanted that.
David: Something I find interesting about Garrison Keillor is that he’s extremely prolific.
Aaron: It’s funny that you point that out, because the attribute of being prolific is shared by most of the people I look up to. I’m inspired by those with a discipline about creation that leads to prolific output. I was fascinated when Michael Crichton had a number one book, number one movie, and number one TV show all at the same time. I was like, WOW! What kind of behavior do you need to have in order to increase your chances of that kind of success? The one and only tattoo I have is on my left arm. It says discipline.
David: You don’t naturally have discipline?
Aaron: I don’t. Although, I think I’ve come to perversely love the rigor and structure of a creative process, with ample doses of chaos.
David: Garrison Keillor was one of the media figures brought down in the #MeToo movement. How did you process that?
Aaron: I found it very shocking. It really raises a couple of questions for me. Can you appreciate the artwork of someone of bad character? If you can’t, how much of humanity’s catalog gets kicked out the door? Because this happened, does that mean that I can’t enjoy his stories or is the timing irrelevant? Can I enjoy the art of anyone? Should my son listen to it? These are questions I’m grappling with. For now I’m letting it breath. I certainly don’t condone his behavior. This shit has to stop.
David: Another influence of yours is sci fi, right?
Aaron: Orson Scott Card is someone who has influenced me. He wrote a bunch of science fiction books in the late nineties to the early two thousands. (and still writes, I believe…) There is a whole series about this character who becomes a speaker for the dead and basically is a narrator to tell the life stories of people who pass away all across the universe. In the unfolding of his story, you run into all these interstellar and global conflicts that say a lot about human nature and about the kinds of futures that we might have.
Card’s work it made me feel less alone because I related to the main character and I felt like he understood what it was like to be me and vice versa. I liked the technique of imagining the future and the changing or shaping of the future, which that series did. In real life, Card and I couldn’t be further from each other ideologically. He is religious and conservative and I am neither, but somehow in the fiction and in the prose there’s a huge resonance.
David: How does the sci fi approach to storytelling inform your work at The Ready?
Aaron: It is about an approach to reality. Sci fi is ethnography and anthropology cast forward. To me, our work at The Ready centers on being conscious of the future but acting in the present to try to shape the here and now. I’m obsessed with the idea of human potential. What kinds of work cultures bring out the best in us? What does it mean to operate at maximum potential ethically, creatively, relationally, or economically?
David: Of anything that you could be doing, why are you doing this? Why is The Ready the right company for you at this moment in your life?
Aaron: My whole career has been a search for the most interesting problem that can keep me engaged. I’ve stumbled through a whole bunch of other related but ultimately different problem spaces. When I hit on the question of how we organize, as human beings, to accomplish work and solve problems, it felt like a bottomless problem because there’s limitless potential.
There is also enormous dissatisfaction under the surface (and in plain sight) right now. So many of the important things that we face – climate, inequality, or reinvigorating democracy – they all have to deal with organizing human systems. There is a richness there that I don’t think could ever run out.
David: When you look at a long established company that is stagnant, what do you see?
Aaron: The metaphor that I always use is a roller coaster. It looks like things are happening, it’s exciting, it’s fast, there’s all kinds of twists and turns, but actually everybody’s just strapped in, including the CEO right there in the front. They are bound to this endless loop of dysfunction. I see rigidness. A lot of our work is about getting off the ride they don’t have to be on. That’s the thing is with almost no exceptions.
Just about every single person that I’ve encountered in my professional career has been a good person trying to do right by themselves, their family, and their community, who is part of a system that is foundationally and fundamentally dysfunctional. They’re doing the best they can.
On the bright side, something fundamental to the human condition is that we’re chameleons. We’re incredibly adaptive and flexible when the rules change, when the boundaries change, when the conditions change. If given space, we can change quite a bit. Too often people are afraid to peel the onion because they have to confront an uncertain reality. A lot of the lies we tell ourselves and the structures we’ve put in place are to confront uncertainty and volatility by basically covering it up with a veneer of planning and control and prediction.
David: How does it feel to be you?
Aaron: I wake up grateful for the fact I’ve been able to create a life around my passions and my interests that works for me and my family. There is a mix of pride, but also an keen awareness of the luck that was involved, especially the more I understand complex systems and the math of the universe.
There is also a sense of being spread thin that results from a desire to be a good citizen in all my different communities: father, husband, and team member at The Ready. I feel a sense of obligation and a positive stress around that.
I feel increasing pressure to do my best work; to realize my own potential in full. I feel like I’ve gotten away with a lot of things in my career and in my life by being a little bit smarter, a little bit harder working, or a little bit luckier than others. I’ve never found out what peak me looks like. So I’m trying to find that right now in the book I’m working on.
David: The future of work is…?
Aaron: The future of work is more human. In the midst of all this technological advance, we need to find a way of savoring this opportunity to be more fully human together for this next wave, which might be the last chance we get to do that.
David: The future of work is more human at the moment when humans are becoming less human?
Aaron: The state of what it is to be human and to be conscious in the universe will totally evolve. I understand our symbiotic relationship to technology and even the potential to be replaced by it. That’s totally natural and that’s fine.
But in this moment while we’re still meat, while we’re still with each other, while we’re still confronted by critical and immediate challenges we barely understand, I think we need to remember that we’re human. We need to show up as human beings to solve the problems today and unlock tomorrow. Hopefully, it is a future that we are proud of.
David: A beautiful sci fi point to end on! Thank you.