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Bridging Technology And The Arts with Max Stossel
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I’d love it if you take a few moments to receive a beautiful breath of clean air, hopefully air that fills your lungs and fills your spirit and allows you to relax for a few moments. We’re going to have an incredible conversation with a very cool and interesting guy. Before we get to that, a few reminders. If possible, be present for this conversation. Maybe you’re doing some other things. I know we all multitask and that becomes a new way of being. It’s how we’ve adapted to the world that’s gone into hyperspeed and we probably haven’t even seen what hyperspeed looks like. I’m thinking back to ten years ago, fifteen, twenty years ago, how much slower things seem to be. The pace of life and the pace of change, the pace of disruption has only gotten faster and exponentially. If you can give yourself this little bit of time, whether it’s to sit quietly, whether it’s a walk, just keep breathing deeply. Take in some of this hopefully very intriguing conversation I’m going to have with a gentleman by the name of Max Stossel. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, thank you for being here with us. Thank you for being a part of this experience. You are a blessing and I’m grateful for you.
My guest is Max Stossel. He is an award-winning poet and filmmaker, named by Forbes as one of the best storytellers of the year. His performances across five continents have been described as mind-expanding, profound, emotive and hilarious all at once. Max and I were part of a TEDx experience that we had up in Lake Tahoe. That’s where we met. Max is also the Head of Education for the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of former tech insiders and CEOs dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interest. It’s a very interesting dichotomy of things, the storytelling he does. He’s a poet and he has worked for the Center for Humane Technology. We’re going to have an incredible experience and conversation and you’ll get to be part of this. Max, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
I want to dive right into what could almost be described as a tale of two things, two cities, the contrast between technology and the arts. On the one hand, I want our folks to learn about what your art form is, where it came from and how you’ve been inspired to pursue it. On the other hand, is this whole world of technology that I started out by describing as something that has sped up the pace of so many things like communication. I don’t mean to say that any of that is negative. I’ve actually felt it’s made it possible for so many things to happen, like for people to be able to work virtually and for people to be able to pursue a lot of their passions because they can be more efficient with their time and more connected to people. It has also created some challenges in terms of how we spend our time and how present we are in the moment. Max, first of all, give us a sense of where you are with your art form and how that all started in that experience that you like?
I’ll tell the story in a way that I think merges a bit of those together. When I was in college, one of my first jobs was doing social media for a startup. They were like, “You’re young. Go figure out social media.” I was working for a healthcare startup. I was having a lot of trouble making sales and all of a sudden, this intern was generating a lot of leads on this social media thing. That made them very interested and I thought to myself, “I can be good at something without having to go to school for it. I can pursue this.” I ended up doing social strategy for Budweiser, Dove and some big brands. I fell in love with the startup world after I met some friends on a trip in Panama and that was a life-changing experience for me. They were also passionate and curious and humble. I was like, “The social entrepreneurship community is cool. I like it. I want it to be a part of it.”
I jumped into a friend’s startup where we were trying to build a social media network. In doing that, I started to realize some of those challenges of technology and how it removes us from being present because we were told by investors that if we can hold your attention for two minutes or longer, we had a valuable company. Most of what we’re trying to do is to figure out, “Which notifications should we send you? What language should we use that’ll get you back into our experience? How many should we send you a day? What’s the language of those notifications be?” Once we have your attention, what design tactics can we use to hold your attention in our experience? I realized that our goals were not the same as the goals of the people we were designing for. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “How much time can I spend on this app today?” That’s not a very human experience. I was starting to recognize that in conversations with Tristan Harris, who’s the leader of this humane technology movement. It seems that there’s a difference here between what we want and what just will do as human beings.
You put a certain set of stimuli in front of us and there’s been a big wave of that humane technology movement. I am grateful to be at the center of that. Speaking at schools, middle schools, high schools, education conferences, parents and teachers about technology and education and the age of distraction and how we can manage the challenges that we’re facing. These phones have been a great social experiment of humanity. What was interesting about the merge between this side of my work and art was that I was always in storytelling. I was noticing as our attention spans go down and down, I recognized when I heard a spoken word poet perform in my friend’s living room, I remembered so much of what he said and I followed the whole thing right through.
I had this realization that rhyme and rhythm are powerful tools to help us listen through a message and to get an idea from one head into another. That was what I fell in love with. The reality of it too is that I got chills up my spine. I started trying to figure out why I liked it so much. Why did they stick with me so much? On the way home, I started to write a journal to figure that out and the first two lines of what I wrote rhymed. I was like, “I can do this.” I finished that poem and then that was where it started. I didn’t know I was an artist until this thing happened to me and I started pursuing it. I do believe that that is in all of us. It’s a matter of starting or trying or finding the thing that makes your body tingle and then trying to pursue that type of art form and be patient with it.
You didn’t have any inkling when you were a kid that you were a poet, that you had a poet’s soul or one of those ways of describing what an artist is at his or her core?
When I was young, I liked Shel Silverstein and poetry that way. I lost that throughout my adolescence and young adulthood and it wasn’t until this happens that I rediscovered it. This was certainly a surprise to me when I was 23 or 22 that I had first heard of this poetry. Maybe I’m a poet. That was a surprising realization.
This is an important part of our conversation that I realized at this moment, Max. If you believe that there are things that animate everything as opposed to being one big random thing. I’m remarking for myself right now how cool it is that we get to explore this conversation around purpose and identity. A lot of folks believe or have been led to believe that we are born with a certain identity or a certain purpose. We spend our lives trying to seek that out and find that and if you don’t know what it is, that somehow you’re lost or you’re less valuable than other people who have figured it out and know it early on in life.
First of all, I didn’t feel that way and it took me into my 40s to realize that something like identity isn’t what we’re born with, it’s what we evolve into and it changes. Our identity at seventeen is very different than the identity we have when we’re 33 or when we’re 50 and that’s okay. Our calling is also not necessarily something that we’re born with. We start to become aware of it when we were five and six and then live our whole lives in that place of calling. The calling is something that can evolve and materialize over time. Even if you don’t think that you have an artistic talent for art, but you are interested in it, it might be that becomes something of a calling later on in life because that’s what happened for you.
It came as a surprise to me. I would not have expected this to be a path. It’s much easier to draw the lines looking back than it is going forward. When I woke up that morning if you would ask me that in three years that I would be a poet, I would have laughed.
It wasn’t the classic signs of like, “I was a great writer when I was a kid.” You mentioned Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree is a book we used to read to the kids and it’s not like you could point back, “There were all these signs.” Looking back, there were probably was some signs but clearly, there was no light bulb moment saying, “I’m going to be a poet someday.” At some point, it became something that you didn’t have an interest in or an appetite for, but you had an aptitude for poetry clearly. Share a little bit about how that evolved in what it’s done. Where you’ve been, what you’ve shared and what it’s done for you on a personal level? I want to see where we can build a bridge between these two seemingly antithetical things that have technology and art.
It’s something I’ve been mulling over in my own brain, so I’ll have a nice public therapy session here. I can sit down at the page and write for six hours. Some days I have nothing good to come out and feel like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing any of this? This is all a fluke. Am I ever going to write something good again?” That’s a pretty frequent occurrence in my writing life. The reason that it feels that way is because when creativity strikes, when inspiration strikes for me, it feels bigger than me. It feels like it’s coming through me but not me doing it. I was trying to catch this message and I’m trying to put it on the page. I’m trying to get it out so that I can share this moment of brilliance with people. That has been the closest to something just truly higher power than myself that I’ve ever felt and that’s been invaluable for me. It’s been almost spiritual for me and I feel a deep sense of purpose with it in that way.
What could be more important than these perfect moments I’m trying to share with people? It’s interesting because of the human technology work. I give a talk, I hear messages like, “The kids have ended their Snapchat streaks.” They’re trying taking a break from social media for a week and see how that feels so they might know what that feels like. I can point to these new digital wellness programs that are coming out on phones that help people reflect and think about how much they’re using technology. I can point the events like that and say, “My work with the Center for Humane Technology has done that.” I’m pointing the world in this direction and that seems a good thing. With poetry, it’s much harder. It’s easy for me to feel like this purpose helps me plant good seeds of good messages into the world and that matters. It’s much harder to say like, “Will you point to the thing that this poetry did?” Which in a way makes it feel less purposeful and in some ways, it’s more selfish which is very confusing. It does not feel selfish at the moment at all. It feels like, “This is so important and I have to share this.” Not for me because this message needs to be shared. In the society that we live in, it’s much easier for me to point to the purpose in the non-artistic work than it is in the artistic work.
Give us a sense of what has been the purpose for the art for you and for others? I know that’s not an easy question to necessarily answer, but what comes up for you?
It’s one of those things that it’s much easier for other people to talk about my art than my own. It seems that these complex things happening in our world, in our lives, in our emotions, I’m able to put words to those in a way that sometimes people have trouble doing themselves. People will have been feeling something incredibly complicated or frustrating or challenging about the world and then they’ll feel alone. I create a feeling of not aloneness that, “He gets this hard thing that I’ve been feeling or dealing with or noticing in the world too and that’s it. He’d said it.” That’s one of the purposes. Each in a way has its own message. The purpose of those individual poems is different. Whether that’s about bringing our country together, whether that’s about having healthy relationships with technology, whether that’s about cherishing the moment and waking up to the world that’s in front of our face. A lot of the times, each poem has its own purpose. I’m doing my best to try and guide that message to the people who need to hear it and trying to guide that message in a way that over the land. Something that comes up for me a lot is that message is only as good as its ability to be received. I’m working hard to try and not just share the thing but share the thing in a way that people can feel it, hear it and get it because so much of the brilliance in the world is lost in translation.
I’m a public speaker and a long-time part of my own pivot story was that out of eighteen years of law practice into this new arena of standing on stages, speaking to people, leading conversations and facilitating different explorations. I’m going to take the question on for myself because I know it’s a difficult question. The overriding experience for me is things flowing through me. Maybe it’s overused or it’s not quite understood what it means to be a channel or there’s some mystery around that. It very much feels that things come through. I don’t always know exactly what’s going to come out of my mouth, in having spoken and not being a spoken word poet, but a spoken word presenter or a spoken word facilitator all over the globe, it is one of the most remarkable things to witness. That process of creating a clear opening, an opportunity for things to flow through and come out the mouth that has the potential that it has, which is to impact people in a variety of different ways, sometimes amazing, beautiful, and positive ways and other times not so.
I remember reading in Emmet Fox’s A Book of Daily Readings, a place where he was describing how the spoken word is like an arrow. It goes where we aim it. When I’m speaking now or in public in larger or small groups, my intention is that my words are aimed at the heart. That’s ultimately my driver, it’s that those words open hearts. The words that we speak are a great deal more powerful than we’re led to believe even when we’re kids when we heard that old expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Max, how do you feel about the power of an impact of your words? Is that also the same thing for you that you allow yourself to be an open channel for expression? Is that how it flows through you or is it something different?
The best way I can describe is being something like a channel, where something comes in higher than me and I am lucky enough to be able to catch that and share that. I’m grateful that that happened sometimes every day. My relationship with whether words matter is complicated. I am constantly wondering if I’m good enough to follow my heart. I’m constantly wondering if I’m worthy of pursuing my art, wondering if my wording is worthy, worried I’m not worthy of working on creating beauty. I am constantly wondering if I am creating beauty. If there’s any substance to these fleeting words, anything that’s worth, anything that changes after people hear my work. There’s been no change as far as the eye’s concerned. I’m concerned that in the end, my life’s work won’t have been worth anything. I’m afraid the world would be a better place if I replace the time I spend on stage with walking out into the streets and doing anything.
Do words matter if they don’t make matter? Do ideas need to take matter to matter? To make matters worse, I don’t want to be out there. I want to be here sharing words that seem to go very quickly fade. My work doesn’t exist in physical tangible space. It comes and then it goes away until we’re left with this. Nothingness, emptiness, consciousness that I so desperately want to shift. When I look around at this, it won’t look any different than when I started unless we’re different than when I started. We won’t look any different as far as the eye’s concerned, so I’m concerned that none of these matters. Do we matter? Nothing but this miraculous organization of matter, a miraculous accumulation of matter, seeing matter, being matter, breathing matter.
We can’t make matter, but we can make matter, matter. We can turn matter into things that matter. We can give matter a value. Are these words valuable? Is that measured in dollars and cents? Logically, that makes sense, but if we were observed by aliens, they’d wonder why we spend so much time and money on things that don’t matter. They’d be like, “Why don’t you value “value” for its value? Why not create a world where value exists based on your values? Planet Earth could be the thing you call heaven with an adjustment to your attitudes.” Isn’t that a beautiful idea and isn’t that something that an idea can be beautiful and maybe that’s enough? I want so badly for it to be enough for what I create in people’s minds to be enough.
I’m hurling stones into this giant pool of consciousness and I finished each poem with a splash. For a few minutes, there’s a ripple over this vast pool of thoughts that we’ve collectively amassed and then it fades as ripples do without a care for me or you. The eerie stillness has resumed. As I gazed at this beautiful natural view, I can’t help but feel it looks the same as before I threw, at least as far as the eye’s concerned. I’m concerned that this is still just the same lake but that nothing’s changed, that there’s nothing in these words that don’t fade. I know the lake has my stones in it now, but if I’m being brutally honest with myself, it’s that change. Does that matter? No matter how much time I spend crafting the perfect lines that won’t stop my time on this Earth from its inevitable decline. Since birth, I have been slowly dying, losing this arm-wrestling match with Father Time and I might look like I have my crap together but I’m concerned that I’m wasting the only thing that matters. I look back from my deathbed and knowing that deep down it didn’t matter that I’ll return to the earth. Nothing but mere matter without having made any more than our ripple. That’s where I’m at in terms of whether my words matter or not. It’s a constant battle for me.
Someone who didn’t know better like me might think we plan that. One of the best things in life is unplanned. I have a question for you based on what I just heard. Do you believe in eternity?
Many of my musings, the answer comes back down to if something goes on forever than this, then X. If it doesn’t go on forever, then Y? I’m not sure. Yes, I believe in eternity.
The question, “Do we matter?” has a different meaning in different contexts. This is all we’ve got. If this is an arm-wrestling match from birth to death, this arm-wrestling with Father Time and we believe in time, then there’s a lot to exploring what we are doing that matters. If this is a chapter in a bigger book, then it has a different meaning. It doesn’t mean to me the things we do don’t matter. Just maybe there’s a little less pressure on us to matter so much. The tech companies might have not coined this, but they certainly knew well for creating cultures, especially among young people, Millennials and Gen Z of being purpose-driven enterprises that want to make the world a better place. There’s almost nothing that matters more than that on some level. Mattering seems to matter quite a bit to the tech world and on some level that also seems a little disingenuous.
Maybe that’s the bridge. It might not be the seamless bridge that you created with that beautiful poem. Let’s talk a little bit about technology and Humane Technology. I know you’re an ex-media guy, but you used to work there I suppose and now you are the Head of Education at the Center for Humane Technology. Let’s have a little conversation here about your views on tech these days. From Gary Vee, he’s out there in a big way speaking about how important it is that we embrace technology. I’m a pivot guy, so there are a lot of pivots in the tech space. I believe that pivot is a synonym for change for me. We should embrace change. We always have the choice to make change our friend or make it our best friend or we can make it our enemy. I’m on the side of embracing the technology and at the same time, we’re in an age of distraction. Technology is more than a distraction. It’s also a manipulation. I’m not a big, huge fan of Facebook these days because how manipulations become quite well-known. I’d love to get your thoughts there since on the one hand, you’ve got this spirit and this artist’s soul and on the other hand, you’re working as the head of education for an organization that wants to bring humanity into technology. It’s an interesting combination of things.
This organization exists out of necessity and out of frustration in the way that they’re headed. A good way of looking at this is when the commodity is a time when that is the thing that is so related to profits with advertising. It’s hard for these companies even when they’re talking of like, “We want to make the world more open and connected, bring people closer together.” That’s the vague mission when the thing that’s getting measured is how much of your time did we get? I need to look at you as an X-year-old male who has 24 hours in his day. I need more of that time this year than I got last year in order to keep my shareholders happy. It’s very hard for that system to look at you as a human being with thoughts, hopes, dreams and things you want to accomplish when the time is such a deep commodity. The downstream consequences of that have been severe. We don’t have that time, but when you point these machine-learning algorithms at systems that distribute information to two billion people, it seems that those systems learn what works for you. What is the type of information that is most likely to keep you engaged and watching or scrolling or liking? It doesn’t matter to the system what that information is. It tends to push us to the extremes of whatever ideas were most likely to believe.
One good example of this is Zeynep Tufekci who’s a disinformation researcher. When she was researching the Donald Trump rallies, she went to watch a YouTube video of them and she was very quickly pushed towards white supremacy and the recommendation algorithms. Those are not the same thing, watching Trump videos and white supremacy, but you’re very quickly pushed in that direction. It’s not just Trump. The same thing happens with Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton video and the conspiracy left. It’s not just even politics. If you watch a video of a vegetarian, the algorithms start pushing you towards veganism. She says it very well and that it’s you’re never hardcore enough for YouTube. That’s one of the things I’m most nervous about. Two billion people are being pushed towards the extreme of their ideas and being so certain because we look through our little screens and our window to the world.
Even when it’s not that we’re talking to our friends, we’re looking through their screens and their windows to the world, it creates the certainty that we know what’s going on, we know what’s best for the world. Can you believe how stupid the other people are who don’t get it? When you have two billion people thinking that way, I get nervous about what direction that’s pushing the world, the state of news and the state of information in. I very much wanted us to create a technology that’s thinking about human values, that’s thinking about human goals and helping us achieve them. Getting on the same team for the most brilliant algorithms that were ever created. If they’re not working against us so that they’re not using us and farming us but working for us and trying to help us live the lives we want to live.
Years ago, I remember part of the criminal code is this thing called inciting a riot. It almost sounds that the design of those systems where the algorithm that is distributing information is intended to throw wood on a fire. What is the fire that it’s stoking? When that’s done without a governor or some collar to say, “Is this ethical or is this moral to throw another log on a fire where people are in riotous emotion about something? Does that make sense to a human being who’d be examining it through the lens of a different set of parameters than a machine would?” Do you know of any safeguards to that or once the algorithm is running, it’s running without any human intervention?
I have to duck off and I definitely cannot answer that question. Maybe we table that one for another discussion. It’s a challenging question and the right question.
Max, I have so enjoyed this conversation and I appreciate that you shared some of your art and your words with all of us. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. Whether you did or you didn’t, we’d love to hear from you anyway. The feedback is oxygen for us, so please feel free to leave a review on iTunes. You can also leave a comment and we’ll reply to that comment right there. I’m going to also remind everybody it was a blessing. We all got to wake up. I know that for certain. Not too many things I know for certain, but the fact that you are reading this right now means you have woken up and that was a blessing. Of course, there’s no guarantee that we get to wake up again tomorrow, but that’s my hope and even my prayer. When you wake up tomorrow, please feel grateful for that blessing, alive and well in your body, in your mind, in your heart and in your soul because it is something truly special. If you’re inclined in that state of gratitude to say these words out loud, I welcome you to do it. Max, remember these words, “I love my life. I love my life. I love my life.” It has been a blessing. Thanks again, Max. It’s been a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
We’ll see you soon.
- Max Stossel
- Center for Humane Technology
- The Giving Tree
- A Book of Daily Readings
- The Conscious Pivot Podcast on iTunes
About Max Stossel
Max Stossel is an award-winning poet + filmmaker named by Forbes as one of the best storytellers of the year. His performances across five continents, from Lincoln Center in NY to the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney, have been described as mind-expanding, profound, emotive, and hilarious all at once. His work has been translated into fourteen languages, won multiple film festivals, and has been viewed over 15 million times online. Max Stossel is also the Head of Education for the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of former tech insiders and CEOs dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests. The merging of these fields allows Max to provide a fascinating perspective on modern content and culture. He is currently performing Words That Move in theatres and speaking to students, educators, and parents on behalf of the Center for Humane Technology.