Expression is Compression

Experiences become shareable creations the way tree sap becomes maple syrup.

It takes 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. So whenever I feel like I don’t have enough ideas to create something meaningful, I go collect more experiences and spend time processing them by writing and talking to friends. 

Even writers who work full-time spend most of their hours away from the keyboard. Full-time authors, for example, don’t actually type for 40 hours per week because they’d have little to say if they did. Instead, they spend most of their time collecting experiences. By the time they sit down to write, they’ve already experienced what they plan to write about, even if they aren’t entirely sure about what they’re going to say. By sitting down to make sense of their existing ideas instead of trying to invent new ones, writers at their computer mold the wet clay of experience into shape. 

When they succeed, their stories are well compressed. They’re tight, and the drama pulls the reader into the story as if they’ve been grabbed by the collar. We’ve all suffered those droning stories that lack the punch that defines good communication, and by extension, good art. Maybe you’ve heard grandma’s World War II stories drag on and on at the Thanksgiving table. Or maybe you’ve watched a movie whose plot moved so slowly that you fell asleep in the theater (that’s what happened to me during Hateful Eight. Sorry, Quentin Tarantino). 

If a story can’t get to the point, it will lose the audience’s attention. That means to ship something excellent, you have to be willing to cut what may have taken weeks or months to produce. As West Side Story composer Stephen Sondheim once said: “You have to throw out good stuff to get the best stuff.” 

That doesn’t mean that every story needs to focus on the climax. That’d be ridiculous. But as Sondheim indicates, the process of gathering ideas and distilling them into a smaller, more compressed form is the essence of creative excellence. 


Driven by Compression Progress 

Delicious syrup is the goal, but it can be hard to know where to find sap. Even when it’s right there, falling from a tree, it’s produced slowly. In the same way, when you’re a creator looking for ideas, daily life moves with tooth-gritting slowness. Sometimes, I wish I could speed life up to 1.25x speed to collect experiences faster. But no matter how hard I try, the hands rotate around the clock at the same pace. 

Like a maple syrup manufacturer looking for sugary sap, the best I can do is to get better at knowing where to find ideas that will improve my writing. But if you don’t know where you’re going, where should you look? 

A 2008 Cornell University paper called Driven by Compression Progress suggests an answer. The authors argue that people make sense of the world by making it simpler and more beautiful—by making compression progress. They assert that creators move towards compression progress not by following their rational mind, but by following their intuition for what’s interesting. In doing so, they compress large data sets into elegant deliverables which are easy to share and remember. 

When we make “compression progress,” we become like Nike, which compressed its entire marketing philosophy into three words: “Just Do It.” Or Nassim Taleb, whose succinct book Antifragile cites almost 500 books in the bibliography. Einstein, too, explained a large portion of how reality works a simple formula: E = mc².

Einstein once said: “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” In more modern terms, we remember Einstein’s words as “things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Einstein’s compression is hard to see because it happened in the abstract, but Pablo Picasso showed the same process of compression in concrete form.

 


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In the image above, Picasso aims to capture the essence of a bull. He ends with a collection of simple lines that illustrate the outlines of his beloved animal. But understanding of compression — and ultimately, the creative process — begins with a closer look at this series of images. 

At the top of the page, Picasso begins by sketching a bull. Even though he wants to end with as few lines as possible, his 2nd and 3rd drawings are more detailed than his first one. The horns are sharper and the tail is defined with sharp contrast. Only around the 4th or 5th drawing, when Picasso breaks the body into parts, does the image become simpler than Picasso’s initial drawing. 

Crucially, Picasso couldn’t have started with the simple image that he ends with. Thinking so is the same fallacy that drives people to say “I could paint that” whenever they visit a modern art museum. Even if it’s true, it misses the point. Had Picasso started with only a small number of lines, just like the image he ends up with, his final rendition wouldn’t have been as pure. It wouldn’t have had the right rhythm or proportions between lines. Only by going through the process of compression can he find the ultimate distillation of a bull. 

Picasso’s painting and “Driven by Compression Progress” are a reminder that we should not worry about the productivity of our curiosity. By handing the reins of discovery to the wisdom of instinct and following the path of maximal interestingness, we can find the kinds of unexpected discoveries that yield compression progress. This, though is the paradox of creativity: your work is done when it looks so simple that the consumer thinks they could’ve done it, which means they won’t appreciate how hard you worked.

Although the process of compression is useful, it’s unable to capture the finest pixels of reality. For example, MP3 file compression works by reducing the accuracy of sound in ways that are beyond the hearing capabilities of most people. Likewise, turning an image from a RAW file into a JPG works by reducing the number of colors in an image, but only in ways that are imperceptible to the human eye. Both forms of compression work by delivering an almost-as-precise end product that travels more efficiently than its uncompressed alternative. 

Compression can conjure the essence of an experience, but never the real thing. At best, their representations of reality can be useful because they distort reality. Sensing the inevitable shortcoming, artists are often tortured by their inability to describe what they experienced with the detail they felt in the moment. 


The Map is Not the Territory

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll tells the story of a character named Mein Herr who makes an uncompressed map of the country that’s the size of the country itself. The map is perfect, but nobody can use it because it’s the size of the country itself. It’s a to-scale rendition of the landscape, but without compression, it’s useless. Unfolding it would cover the whole country and prevent the sun from even hitting the earth. 

Scholars have been grappling with this theme since Plato’s theory of forms. In his book Science and Sanity, philosopher Alfred Korzybsky wrote: “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” 

More recently, Rene Magritte highlighted the same phenomenon in his most famous painting, The Treachery of Images. Below his painting of a pipe are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is French for “this is not a pipe.” As he’s trying to show, it’s a representation of a pipe. 

 


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Magritte shows that painters will run into the map/territory distinction whenever they try to draw what they see. Even if they can create beautiful representations of reality, they can never recreate precisely what they saw with their eyes. 

In 2015, I was moved to tears at a Porter Robinson concert. To date, his Worlds live set is the best piece of art I’ve ever seen. Standing in the audience, a football field away from his all-glass DJ stand, I felt like he was speaking to me personally as he told the story of his entire childhood in just 90 minutes. In a desperate attempt to capture the moment, I recorded videos of the lionhearted bass drops and the sea of voices in the crowd. But even with a high-end smartphone camera, I was able to preserve only a slice of that divine moment. Whenever I show the recordings to friends, it looks to them like every other EDM concert they’ve seen: “Looks cool, bro.” 

And I’m stuck thinking, “You just had to be there.”

Late in the evening, whenever I’m nostalgic for that live show and long for something comforting, I’ll open my phone and re-watch the highlights. But no matter how many times I pray for a different outcome, that intense feeling is forever gone. Never again will the bass assault my senses like it did on that warm Baltimore night. 

As a fan of electronic music, the delta between the territory of lived experience and the map of recorded videos makes me want to throw my phone off a 17-story building. To my despair, videos will never recreate the embodied experience of majesty I felt during Porter’s live set. But as a consumer, I appreciate when creators run their ideas through an unforgiving filter of compression until only the finest minerals are left. The more information is compressed, the more efficiently it can travel from creator to consumer. Even if it’s an incomplete representation of reality, few things are more satisfying than concentrated gems of information that express a lot about the world.


But Distorted Maps Can Be Useful

Maps can be useful, even if they’re inaccurate. In fact, we use distorted maps all the time. For years, I didn’t realize that Brooklyn was so much bigger than Manhattan because of the design of the subway map, which makes Manhattan look way bigger than it actually is. But there’s a good reason for the distortion. If the subway map was drawn to scale, riders wouldn’t be able to navigate through Manhattan, where the density of tracks is highest. New Yorkers can efficiently use the subway because the map lies about the city’s geography.

 


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The New York City subway map distorts—and compresses—the landscape in additional ways. For example, it only shows the main streets above ground, and it makes them look straighter than they actually are. Central Park looks like a square, even though it’s much more of a rectangle. Instead of showing every transit hub, it shows only the airports, and even when it does, the map removes the runways and makes the terminals seem bigger than they actually are. The end result is a well-compressed map that shows only what riders need to see. 

Like a maple syrup manufacturer, New York’s map designers removed irrelevant details of the map until they were left with nothing but a collection of sugary sweetness. At the cost of accuracy, most of the city’s details have been removed so passengers can focus on getting to their destination. 

In that way, the map is like a diamond — a form of ultra-concentrated carbon compressed in the earth’s molten core, 100 miles below your feet, at temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, where pressure exceeds 725,000 pounds per square inch. Just like diamonds and just like maple syrup, only by exposing our ideas to the force of compression can we trim the excess until we’re left with nothing but the sweet taste of compression. 


Acknowledgments

Thanks for Ellen Fishbein for working on this piece with me, and to Tiago Forte, Will Mannon and Taylor Pearson for the uncompressed conversations that led to this (hopefully!) well-compressed essay.


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