Real Life with Stephen Hackett

Stephen and his Family Stephen Hackett and his family.

Continuing today with Mr. Stephen Hackett of 512 Pixels, the Real Life series delves into the impact of technology upon parenthood, the nature of a personal weblog, and the truly valuable portions of our lives.

The purpose — as is the conceit of the series — is fairly complex, but nonetheless entertaining to consider: I would like to unravel the hyperbole and find out what is truly of significance to the taste-makers, developers, and thinkers of our industry.

I ask you to consider the Real Life series as an ongoing discussion between friends. A conversation built upon the tenets of introspection, reflection, and thoughtful consideration of the past, present, and future. Herein, my goal is that you might hopefully come to abandon any lingering feelings of negativity, and embrace a youthful feeling of hope and awe for the innovative world in which we live.

MA: Stephen, as a writer, author, and parent, how has technology made a true impact upon your life?

SH: I wouldn’t be a writer (or author, now that I have a book out) without technology, I don’t think. At least, I wouldn’t be the type of writer I am now. I write about technology, journalism and design over at 512 Pixels. I’m fascinated with what happens at the intersection of those topics.

As a parent, technology’s impact is harder to pin down. My wife and I try to limit the time our two kids spend with technology directly. There’s just something healthy about running around in the back yard. We do use things like the iPad and our Mac mini to teach them things like colors and the ABCs, but most of their toys are low-tech.

I think we nerds sometimes have a very limited view of technology. I’ve learned over the past three years that it’s a much bigger field than just consumer electronics companies.

As some readers may know, our son is a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He’s been battling a malignant brain tumor since May 2009. The technological breakthroughs in the fields of neurosurgery and chemotherapy have literally saved his life.

MA: The notion that the technology community often casts its gaze too thinly is a resonant one. Rather than marveling at innovation — particularly in fields external to consumer electronics — I find that people frequently focus on one or two characteristics they do not like. It promotes a feeling of self-entitlement and greed — somehow perpetuating the misconception that they are the only users of a product or service in the world.

Obviously, with your experiences with your son, you’ve had a much broader experience than most. Rather than catering devices to your specific environment, you’ve been ushered into a technologically diverse environment. Technology, for you, is not just a matter of iPhones and Instagrams, but of life-saving, eye-opening significance. In other words, a device is not measured by its failings, but by its ability to — as you wrote — enrich lives.

Do you think this has shaped your perspective? Has your usage of these consumer electronics been metered by a valuable sense of real-world experience? And has the relentless cycle of iterative releases had less of an impact — particularly in light of your vision upon medical advances? Or, perhaps, has it become a constant in a world of changing circumstance?

SH: I think that I’ve come to see all the shit we care and write about most of the time really doesn’t matter all that much at the end of the day.

Yes, my iPhone and MacBook Air allow me make things easier than I could without them. Yes, services like Instagram are great fun. But they really aren’t life-changing things, most of the time.

I do love technology, and I think my appreciation for it is deeper than what most people feel. I’ve often said the computer is just a tool — it’s not what it is that is important, but what you do with it. Playing Angry Birds is a waste of time (but fun), but writing some worth reading or figuring out how to cure cancer are far better uses of those CPU cycles.

MA: Incidentally, I notice that you’ve often written about intensely personal topics on *512 Pixels. Although some might view this as a deviation from the norm, I tend to think it’s one of the best aspects of your writing. You don’t limit yourself to Apple or news, you focus on what is important to your *life.

In that sense, do you find that *512 Pixels has become an extension of your own day-to-day experience? That, despite it being a static website, your writing has become a means to permeate between those boundaries between technology and life? To me, it is precisely this exercise that embodies the significance of technology in real life and, in my eyes, you are one of its biggest advocates — whether intentionally or not.

SH: I’m not really sure why I started writing more personal things on the site. Whatever the reason, the encouragement and feedback I get from those sorts of posts is always positive, and always overwhelming.

When Josiah was diagnosed with cancer back in 2009, my wife and I started a blog to keep those in our lives updated on what was then a very day-to-day situation. Now that Josiah’s stable (but not cancer-free), we don’t update it as much. In hindsight, I am so glad we started it. I already use it brush up on things I’ve forgotten over the last three years.

While 512 has become an outlet for me, the Josiah blog is as well. I expect to write more “personal” posts in the future.

MA: There is a perpetual discussion in our community concerning the differences between a blog — such as *512 Pixels — and a technology site like *The Verge. In my eyes, it is precisely these personal posts that constitute the difference.

I remember back in November — when I first launched *ONE37 — I wrote to you about your personal post, Three. Written as a letter to your son, you discussed the nuances of parenting, the delicate balance of life, and the struggles that you and your family have endured. Obviously such subject matter has little to do with technology but — despite its location on a predominantly technology-related weblog — it felt utterly at home in that context. As a relatively new reader, I suddenly felt a distinct *attachment to your site, your message, and the sentiments therein. I think there’s certainly something poignant about the permeation of this message in such a fashion.

Beyond those intimately related to your family, have you felt some semblance of closeness with your readers when it has come to sharing such personal matters? I know, from my perspective, that your reflections upon parenthood are of great personal interest despite my utter lack of experience in the field. Do you intend to continue this topic in future? Has it been a fruitful experience for you both as a parent and as a writer?

SH: I’ve gotten so many emails, tweets and letters in the mail (really!) from readers, its hard to count. I’ve heard from people who have survived cancer, and those who have lost loved ones to it. It seems that people really, genuinely care about Josiah and our family, without ever having met us. It’s amazing.

I don’t really know how much I will write in the future about Josiah and other personal matters on 512 Pixels. I take that one subject a time, honestly. That said, it has helped me grow as a writer immensely. It’s much harder to write about something you’re close to.

MA: Thinking about the site, specifically, I’ve noticed that you’ve been pursuing and experimenting with a great many ventures for the growth of *512. In the past few months alone you’ve written a book, opened up membership, sold t-shirts, registered an LLC, and so on. With all of these avenues in place, what are you planning for the site in the coming months?

Insofar as *512 is acting as an “extension” of your consciousness, I tend to view *512 — and indeed the weblogs of other prominent writers — as representative of their personalities. As you continue to hone design, court new ideas, and make large steps toward taking the website full-time (perhaps), it seems clear to me that *512 is as much an extension of your consciousness as it is a window onto your life. In this vein, do you have lofty plans for the website and yourself? Do you see the two as being somewhat interdependent?

SH: Over the coming months, I hope to include more reviews of hardware and software. I really enjoy working on them, and people seem to enjoy reading them. I think it’s a win-win.

I’d love to take the site full-time. It’s the one thing that could pull me away from what I do now, which I love. Even if that never happens, I do view the site as an extension of me. I think I write with far more personality than I used to, and I hope to continue to write about things that interest me. If my interests shift, I think the site will shift, too.

MA: With regard to viewing the website as a personal extension, I think that’s an endlessly important distinction to maintain. There’s a recurring misconception in the community that these *personal outlets are somehow at a distinct disconnect — that the content is above others and deserving of *greater reward. Aside from the obviously unhealthy implications of such a perspective, I think it cheapens the experience, and utterly returns us to the juncture that technology is separate from our real lives.

Although you certainly champion the integrity of this relationship, do you see the landscape shifting in coming months? Advertising and RSS sponsorships have long facilitated the sanctity of web designs, but it seems that this arrangement is increasingly being framed as “not enough.” Do you intend to keep *512 operating in its current manner — both in an advertising sense, but also as an implicitly personal extension?

SH: I mean, advertising and RSS sponsorships pay the bills at 512. I don’t see them going away for me. I do offer a membership, and plan on doing more with that in the future. I don’t see any big changes on the horizon, though. I’m just going to keep showing up and keep writing.

MA: Well, that certainly sounds good to me. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SH: I think I’m good. Thanks so much!

MA: Thank you, sir. Your time and insight is much appreciated.

This article is the second iteration of ONE37’s recurring interview series, Real Life. You can catch up with Stephen on Twitter, or his popular website, 512 Pixels.