In music, particularly in jazz, a riff is an ostinato phrase supporting solo improvisation (e.g. - "the guitarist played a riff underneath the solo"). We also understand that to riff on something is to perform theme and variation on a topic. Lenny Bruce was a master at this.
Since the beginning of 2013, I've been riffing as a digital architect. This is not the independent gig I had last year, when half a dozen clients paid me to orchestrate and perform pieces of varying length. Instead of those improvisations, I now play in a larger ensemble, composing and arranging for content management systems, the symphonic foundation of social publishing.
We engage our clients in thrilling discussions about taxonomies, semantic frameworks, and user experience. Workflow, process reengineering - it's all good - and yet at the end of all this, I can't shake the feeling that all this activity concerns just another in a series of ordinary web sites.
Don't get me wrong. I like what I do, and I'm good at it. But it's been awhile since I've heard an original riff. That's why I was even more blown away than I expected, when I started Jaron Lanier's book, You Are Not a Gadget.
I first started following Jaron in the 80s, when he and several other pioneers of virtual reality were way ahead of the pack - too far ahead, as it turned out, because our computers were not powerful enough, and the public imagination wasn't ready.
Jared's riff is different now. He is still well-regarded in Silicon Valley, a place he now regards with skepticism, despite his roots. He riffs on lock-in, a wonderful term he uses to describe the fixed point of view I see in most web sites today. Lock-in freezes a perspective that might appear brilliant at the moment, but risks becoming a Maginot Line.
That's what I see around me: predictable ideas locked in a box of predictable design. It's the path of least resistance, of course, because communication occurs along the lowest common denominator, the plane of aesthetic consensus. While I shy away from some of Jared's socio-economic analysis, I agree that we need a radical crescendo to break free of the coda.
Enough of the fractured musical metaphors. It's time to find a new riff.