Confessions of a rueful geek.

I was just reading an article about the developments in cryptocurrencies (which is really worth checking out — but is not what I want to write about today) and was struck by a section on how the immense power of open systems to spawn creativity and community have been increasingly stifled since those systems were co-opted by big corporations. All of which led me to think about my sketchbook.

At the time I started to draw in a sketchbook — in the pre-dotcom-bubble-burst of the early mid ’90s — I was also exploring the early Internet. Back then, most people were as unaware of the transformational power of networked computers as they were unaware of the idea of illustrated journal keeping or sketchbook art. Now, of course, we all spend hours a day on the Web but, 20 years ago, it was a lot geekier place to hang out.

I loved that geekiness — because geeks are interesting and passionate. They know a lot and they care a lot. The early Internet wasn’t just the playground of tech geeks. I found wheelchair geeks there when I started curbcut.com, a community for disabled people like my wife, Patti. And I found sketchbook geeks too, like Richard Bell and Roz Stendahl.

In those days, the Internet was turning out to be a wonderful place to find people who shared niche interests like old record collecting or fishing gear or classic car restoration or knitting. These sorts of geeks gushed with knowledge that had been long bottled up because no one around them in the real world was even vaguely interested in the passions that consumed them.

But when geeks meet geeks, decades of stored up arcana comes pouring out of their basement lairs and garage workshops and people spend hours and hours talking about minor Star Wars characters or Jane Austen subplots or the best way to pickle kimchi or fill a fountain pen with waterproof ink. What seemed eye-glazing to the rest of the world was endlessly fascinating to some other geek, previously burrowed in obscurity in Croatia or North Dakota or the Bronx.

The first book I wrote, Hello World, was about an intense geek sub-species, the ham radio operator.  In the 1920s, when radio was a hot emerging technology, hams were super cool, but eighty years later, they were just geezers who wore pocket protectors, Vitalis and white socks with black shoes.

But I loved their passion, their willingness to stay up all night trying to reach a fellow ham deep in Siberia or put together dangerous expeditions to literal desert islands lost in the Pacific just to be the first to transmit from a new location. Hams loved the Internet too, helped birth it in fact, but it was ultimately the last nail in their coffin. Why hand build a radio to bounce Morse code off the moon when you could just send a text message from your phone?  Their obscure hobby was now just a silly waste of effort made redundant by Twitter and Google and Facebook, the megacorps their efforts actually spawned.

Anyway, as I read this article, I thought about my own long-time passion for keeping a sketchbook and how it has changed over two-plus decades. What started as a solitary therapeutic activity grew into a network of new geek friends, then into this blog (I wrote the first post over a fourteen years ago just to share thoughts with my pal Richard in Yorkshire), then into a series of books, and then into talks, teaching, and a full-time job and business hiring several people. My geekdom has become as increasingly mainstream as my network has expanded. When you are surrounded by an army of tens of thousands of like-minded folks, you aren’t an outsider anymore. Or a geek.

There have been lots of advantages to this mainstreaming process, both for me and for technology. Back in the day, if I had a tech problem, there were maybe three other dorks I could call on to help solve the problem. Now I can just Google an answer or walk two blocks to the Apple Store.

But all this mass-produced convenience has polished away the magic. My computer, which used to be like a hand-carved wizard staff, carefully assembled and tweaked, is now as personal as a rental car.

And my sketchbooking process, which has become an essential part of who I am, can also get diluted and homogenized if I don’t remain vigilant and true to my origins. It’s essential to hold on to what has made my art process intimate and personal, even if it needs to be shared now and then.

It’s also crucial to remind myself of what has always given the process its power and excitement. That it is an ever-changing creative lab, that it gives me a fresh perspective on the world around me, and that it never become rote.  And equally important, that it remain authentic, made by me for me, that it stays honest and unswayed by others’ wants and expectations, that I am filling pages for their own sake.

There’s a real danger in refining a method, in becoming too polished, and devolving into generic illustration, in being infected by commercialism, by some projected audience, that it goes from a passion, a hobby, an exploration, into a job. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists who used to excite me and are now just undistinguished self-promoters questing for likes, Etsy sales  or freelance gigs,

Amateur doesn’t mean second rate or unskilled. It’s derived from amare, to love, an activity fueled by passion — by geekery, if you will. But it can be so much more raw and exciting than the predictable, manicured path that professionalism and corporatism mandate. Just as Facebook grows duller by the day, just as my corporate agency job chafed me, striving for professional standards will dull one’s art and leach it of the passion that makes it moving.

The wild west frontier days of the Internet are now just fodder for TV shows which do no justice to the headiness of random discovery I remember. But every blank page in my sketchbook still has that power to shock and excite me, so long as I remember to stay free and explore.

How do you stay authentic?