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Cultivated Wit comedy hack co-founder Baratunde Thurston weighs in on technology and society

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Some of the most insightful conversations come in the most casual settings. On The Ride we catch up with today's top personalities in technology and entertainment on their way to work, running errands, or checking out a new show. Along the way, we field questions sent live from The Verge readers via a tablet connected to the OnStar 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi® hotspot.

Throughout history, technology has opened new avenues for creative expression. While a reaction GIF featuring Chuck Norris or a kitten arguably doesn't carry the same weight as the printing press, the ever-evolving ways we express ourselves are regardless worth examining. No one knows this better than author and comedian Baratunde Thurston. Fluent in technology from an early age, Thurston is the co-founder of Cultivated Wit, a hack-a-thon series that pairs coders with comedians to create wholly new avenues for humor. We caught up with Thurston in Los Angeles to talk comedy, technology, social issues, and more.

Baratunde, thanks for joining us.

Baratunde Thurston: Thank you for having me man. It's good to see you man.

Where are we headed to today?

BT: We're going to Venice, California.

All right. On the way, we've got some questions from The Verge readers. Tell us a little bit about Cultivated Wit's Comedy Hack Day. What's it all about?

BT: Comedy Hack Day is an event series for now, where comedians, software developers, and designers get together and build funny things. It's almost like a comedy writers' room, but instead of writing jokes or scripts, they're building apps and tech products that are funny on purpose.

Do you find that you have comedians coming up with all the funny ideas, and then the programmers run around and make it happen?

BT: They definitely talk like that when they do everything.

I know a lot of programmers. They all talk like this.

BT: Little pained robots. Yeah, in terms of the humor, I think initially, we might have expected that the comedians would have all the funny stuff, the developers would just be able to do it — but it is a bit more back and forth than that. I think there are a lot of people who are programmers and coders that have some funny ideas and no outlet for it. Their day jobs ask them to use their talents for often really boring stuff. They're optimizing databases by day, but we give them a chance to express their comedic side. The comedians definitely carry the weight of being funny and communicating that idea on stage to an audience. They are useless when it comes to the coding side.

How did you come up with the Comedy Hack Day idea?

BT: I think the way that I came up with Comedy Hack Day was to partner with one of my co-founders, Craig, who came up with the idea. Transitive property of invention.

I've definitely coded before. I have run teams of programmers. I used to work at The Onion, running digital strategy there. Interacted with our designers and front end, and back end developers to build stuff. I can speak to people who can speak computer. That's an important skill

How many Comedy Hack Days have there been?

BT: We've done eight so far. I guess by the end of 2015, we'll have done 11 Comedy Hack Days.

Are they spinning over more, are you doing them more frequently as time goes on?

BT: We are doing them more, and they are getting better. We're starting to open up the process to have other people run them. There's more demand for folks to want to pull these off in places where we can't necessarily be. We're trying to figure out what's the best way to satisfy that. There's definitely folks out there who want to comment on the world by more than just a monologue, more than just a funny article.

The real inspiration is: can you create a piece of funny humor that's interactive? Instead of just watching someone be funny on a stage on a video file, can you swipe through a joke yourself? Can you have notifications that are funny? Can you have a browser plug-in that impresses a layer of humor on your browsing of the web?

The ideal would be for these things [to] actually live outside of the Comedy Hack Day and actually be something that goes online that anybody can go and use.

BT: Yeah. I think we should be creating these environments where more people can participate. They're not limited to the ones that we happen to run internally ourselves. We're working on that. Then the things that folks slap together in one weekend, those are not necessarily ready to ship. They are ready to barely demonstrate in front of an audience that is not full of scrutiny. If you put it in the app store, it would collapse under the weight of its inadequacy.

We had an example out of New York actually, I reached someone in New York. The winning app is called Got This Thing. It's a calendar app that lets you auto-fill your calendar with real events so you look busier than you actually are and can get out of requests by your friends to help them do things like help them move.

It actually puts them into your calendar?

BT: If you authorize it, into your Google account, it does do the courtesy of creating a new calendar. You can turn it on and off. It doesn't flood your personal calendar with it. Now you have a legitimacy to back up you lying to your friends.

Here's another question from one of our Verge readers: What is the relationship between technology and art? Real simple questions [laughs]. If you could just answer that in ten words or less.

BT: Okay. You got it, you got it. That is determined by you, reader. That is determined by you.


BT: No I think art is enabled by some form of technology. I think for the art world, technology is an input. Whether the technology is a canvas and a paint brush or a pencil, or a printing press which allows for words to be rapidly put on pages and distributed around the world.

We create art in part because we have the technology to do so. Our technology is getting more advanced so I think it's opening up new forms of art that can be created. For technology, I think art provides a purpose that is on a higher plane than some of the pure functions or business objectives that technology is often promoted for. You may use this to just make a ton of money and make a business process more efficient. If you can use it to create art that evokes a feeling in someone — not that technology has some higher use in the world — I think it actually makes technology more beautiful if it has an artistic expression.

I think we're in an exciting time where the technology's developing so much more rapidly than it has before. It's opening up these new unknown avenues. How are the artists going to play with that? Some things are really obvious. Okay, you go from video disc to DVD to Blu-ray so you're increasing resolution, basically. The picture's getting sharper, that's an incremental at least linear development. The artistic capabilities of coding, cloud computing, sensor technology, drones — we're going to be able to be hyper aware of things technologically. The idea of the smart house and talking to your refrigerator — what is an artist going to do with your refrigerator? That's what I want to know.

Are there any brand new technologies, or even theoretical technologies that can be coming in the coming years that excite you from an artistic perspective or a comedic perspective?

BT: Virtual reality. Virtual reality, we have in some ways, if you want to get super philosophical, and maybe super scientific honestly, we're inverse reality already. We're just perceiving this world. We have this shared agreement that certain things are real that maybe aren't. Like money, but we all adhere to that and behave accordingly. That's a useless version of it.

The idea of a headset that represents a reality so well that you can almost not distinguish it from a real one. Creating humor in that space, creating a self image. I've put on an Oculus, and when you look down you don't see anything. I would just like to see just crab legs or something. Just totally freak somebody out. Am I a crab now? Mess with their sense of self. That could be weird. I think the idea of building a whole universe and a whole world visually and sensor wise. You'd drive a joke home on multiple layers much more deeply.

Another question from one of our Verge readers, what's your earliest experience with technology?

BT: Probably the hospital where I was born.

Oh, okay. That's not a sad story though.

BT: No, I'm just being born.

Okay, you're not a cyborg or anything?

BT: I don't think I know. Can you really know? I could be a really advanced cyborg that is programmed to believe that he's human.

Yeah. I'm not supposed to talk to you about that.

BT: All right. I think my earliest true memory of using any technology. We had a really old video game console in my house when I was a kid. Black and white. It had pong on it.

Was it an Atari?

BT: It was not an Atari. It was something way cheaper than an Atari.

Like a knockoff Atari?

BT: Yeah. I think that's even a fuzzy memory. We did have a computer, when I was really young. It actually affected my whole life to be able to interact with computers from such a young age. By the time I showed up in school, I was a couple of steps ahead and computers have always been a part of whatever job I had. It's like this extra language you can speak. Even though I'm not a coder. We got an Apple, 2E. I remember playing Dr. J. And Larry Bird on it in the '80s. I remember typing things on it, doing typing tutor games. I probably started a global thermo-nuclear war with it.

The movie "War Games" was based on your personal experience.
BT: Right.

I got another question from a Verge reader. How has technology shaped the society we live in?

BT: Who are... What is wrong with these Verge people?

Now, let's answer this question with just one word.

BT: Painful. That's my one word answer.

What is the Burning Man wall?

BT: Oh, yeah this is great. At Cultivated Wit, we turned on this crowdfunding campaign to build a wall around the Bay Area and San Francisco, during the week of Burning Man, in order to prevent the attendees of Burning Man from being able to return to San Francisco. They'd get their utopian community all year round. San Francisco gets a better city.

How's the campaign going so far?

BT: It's great I think we've raised three billion dollars. It's a seven and a half billion dollar project. It's a major infrastructure improvement.

What social trends do you see gaining in popularity right now?

BT: I think there's a form of visual communication that is gaining. When we think about the internet in particular. I have another answer for broader social things, but the internet was built on text communication. Even though emoji, emoticons, is what they started as, these approximations of facial expressions. You got an emoji, yay! GIFs. I think the reaction image and being able to share how you're feeling, with a piece of media that you know other people will recognize, with a dance move, with a scene from "Minions," with a clip from a speech and some facial expression or an animal doing something ridiculous. That feels really new. It's taking the place of words. In fact, maybe a thousand of them, because that's the value of a picture in the word economy. I think that's one, social digital communications trend.

That's very interesting to me, and it seems like a lot of those things, like what you just described, like reaction using pop culture references, happens at the edges, right? There's no big central media corporation or someone that's getting a lot of attention that does that crazy thing. It happens on the periphery and then gets brought inwards.

BT: Yeah. It's the same way anything cool ever has happened. It didn't start with a massive corporation declaring, we're going to create this new way of doing things and you're all going to love it. It's going to be wildly popular. It's usually some kid somewhere on the margins developed a new way to dance, to use a skateboard, to do something on a bike, to make a sound. That's hip hop's origins. That's everything-cool-you've-ever-loved's origins — is from somebody everybody was ignoring.

I've noticed that a lot of new businesses are popping up that market themselves as Uber for blank. I was wondering if you and I could come up with an idea for a business just off of the top of our heads, just an Uber for something, because they seem to be popular, right?

BT: Let me think about that. There's no Uber for ice.

Okay, you open it up, there's just a picture of an ice cube, and you just click it.

BT: Right and you get ice when you need it. Ice on demand.

What would you call it?

BT: The ice man cometh.

What role can comedy, specifically, play in influencing public opinion?

BT: I think humor bypasses a lot of our radar systems for things we don't agree with. A well-crafted, comedic point of view can hit you in a more emotional place rather than in your brain cells where you're like, "I don't like that position, so I'm already going to disagree because I don't like the messenger. I don't like the position. I don't care what the substance is." But if you can repackage that in a funny joke or in a funny scene, you may get an audience paying attention in a way that wouldn't to a straight up political statement. It's a form of hacking. It's a mind hack.

All right, here we are.

BT: Thank you for the questions.

Thanks for joining us Baratunde.

BT: And the free ride. I love it.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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