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The Very Emo Reformation of Chris Jones

The former ‘Esquire’ tough guy and author of the new book ‘The Eye Test’ has gone from social media pugilist to wanting to help everyone unlock their most creative selves

A quarter century ago, serious-minded black-and-white billboards, subway posters and magazine pages started appearing with an exhortation to the masses of human lemmings going about their daily lives: Think Different 

The grammatically wonky Apple ad campaign, which ran ran from 1997 until 2002, featured sober photographs of artistic geniuses like Jim Henson, Miles Davis, Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso and Muhammad Ali. Oh, and recently reinstalled CEO Steve Jobs, because sweater vests ain’t paying for themselves. The “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” television spot roped in Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and Jerry Seinfeld as “rebels” and “troublemakers” who “can change the world” thanks to their G3 desktops. The sloganeering was effective as the floundering, nearly-bankrupt company saw its stock price triple and its market share rise more than 4 percent, even though the initial campaign wasn’t tied to a new product. In 1998, the iMac debuted, and Apple never really looked back. 

What’s crazy is, however dubious it is to use murdered civil rights leaders as “cutting-edge” branding, the idea that the information age was going to unlock personal creativity like no time in human history felt plausible. Powerful home computers coming together with this new dial-up world wide web thing offered the promise of freedom from the drudgery of corporate whims.

Alas, it didn’t happen. Judging by the standards of life in 2022, whatever open-sourced, be-whatever-you-want ethos of the glory days of the online revolution has been swallowed whole by Big Tech. We are now subject to the whims of monopoly machines in the new world of “surveillance capitalism,” driven by money, power and governmental influence to “transform the public sphere by the algorithmic curation of our information feeds.” To (everyday) wit: Netflix’s suck-ass recommendations

For his part, National Magazine Award-winning writer Chris Jones is tired of the inhumane winning. He appeals to all of us to let our hearts and minds, not binary code, lead us to a brighter future in his new book The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Jones believes thinking differently comes from our innate abilities as people, not from the “Moneyballing” of, well, everything. It’s a simple notion extrapolated through thinkers he’s known and loved, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye. The Eye Test is definitely not of the “counterintuitive” tomes, replete with cherry-picked, often wildly misconstrued studies, proving “everything you know is wrong!” Nor is it a jeremiad against data, stats, algorithms or analytics, it’s just calling for balance. Jones is a “stop and smell the flowers” guy, not a “disrupt the peony industry” one. 

Jones spent many years as a writer-at-large for Esquire, crafting incredible pieces including “The Things That Carried Him,” a brilliantly powerful telling of how the body of fallen soldier Sgt. Joseph Montgomery made it from Baghdad to a cemetery in his hometown of Scottsburg, Indiana. His Roger Ebert profile is revered as well, but don’t sleep on the incredible tale of the wordless magician Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, and the lengths he goes to in protection of his craft. 

At the height of his journalism career however, he was spinning out. Publicly, he tried living up to a phony macho bourbon-and-bacon writer guy persona by picking online fights. Privately, he was divorced, suicidal, broke and worried he’d fuck up his two sons forever. Eventually, he landed in therapy, fell in love, got a short-lived job writing for the Netflix series Away (based on his 2014 article about astronaut Scott Kelly) and continued doing the best job he could with Charley, his older autisitc son who is the soul of the book. The most beautiful passage in The Eye Test is about Charley’s amazing ability to find four-leaf clovers in any field of grass because he literally thinks different

We recently spoke as Jones waited out Omicron clearance to return from Buffalo to his home in Ontario. Amongst other things, we talked about how he’s trying, and failing, to be less emo, losing a Netflix gig you love to an algorithm you don’t and how we perhaps could’ve prevented 900,000 COVID victims from becoming spreadsheet casualties, a stark reality tragically close to my heart. 

Before delving into the book, I want to ask you about your magazine writing career. It more or less ended when you left Esquire, which lined up with the last throes of men’s print magazines playing a major role in dictating culture. Some magazines survive, but it will never be the same as it was over the previous 50 years. Are you nostalgic for the era you came out of, which technically wasn’t all that long ago, but sure feels like it. 

I was talking to a journalist friend the other day and said, for me, “Magazine writing was the perfect form, longer than newspapers, shorter than books, more absolute than screenwriting.” I love the length of magazine features, and I love the ink on paper aspect of it. I know that makes me sound like a dinosaur, but I have a stack of Esquires that will live on. Future readers can thumb through a copy and hopefully care about things I wrote. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but writing for the web feels so impermanent. So yes, I’m nostalgic all the time. 

One major aspect of reporting lost in the digital age is time. The original pitch for “The Things That Carried Him” was me telling my editor, Peter Griffin, that I didn’t know how returning the body of a soldier from Iraq worked. What is the process to bring them home? Griffin sent me the greatest email an editor can send, “Disappear. Come back when you’re ready.” I spent eight months on it. It was a gift. One of my fears is that because of the way the industry economics operate now, Joey’s story won’t get told. 

The Eye Test isn’t a Luddite screed, but it’s a clarion call to remember humans are capable of seeing the world in ways machines can’t, and we’re capable of correcting our behavioral courses to be better. A literal version of this played out on your Twitter feed, which years ago, found you engaging in pointless media feuds. Why did you go down that futile road? 

There’s no excuse for it, but I have an idea as to why I went there. The writers I admired growing up were all the stereotypical ones — Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson — and being combative and fighting was sort of their deal. So I emulated my heroes. I also come from Millbrook, a small town in Ontario, where messing with the rules meant you were going to fight. Are you familiar with the show Letterkenny? That was my childhood. People talk about Canadians being nice, but we’re not. We’re just polite. My idols were always ready to scrap, and then I started my career covering boxing, so being combative became who I was. If someone chirped at me, I was compelled to say something back. I took the same approach to social media, which was unproductive and just made me feel bad, which made me lash out. Like in hockey, an actual physical fight can be satisfying, but not on social media. It was such a waste of time. 

So a decade later, in the spirit of your main thesis of The Eye Test, your Twitter scroll is filled with self-deprecating stories and sappy dad jokes to the point of making a 2022 resolution to “be less emo on here.” What led to the change in persona from tough guy to heart-on-his-feed guy?

The big change was getting the shit kicked out of me in real life. In a relatively short amount of time, I got divorced, left Esquire, had suicidal ideation and went into therapy to deal with depression. It all sort of coalesced, and I came out of it wanting to be better.I feel like I’ve emerged as a radically different person. I don’t want to be a person who hurts people, I don’t want to be known as an asshole. I want to be nice. I want to help people. Early on in the pandemic, I was just trying to cheer myself up and thought I could be light and funny on Twitter. So I started telling stories from my life to maybe help others feel a little less alone, or put a momentary smile on their face during quarantine. 

I didn’t have a plan, it was just something to do. But you’ll never guess what I learned — if you put nice stuff out there, even on Twitter, you’ll get nice stuff back. I wrote a thread about Pete Simon, a guy in high school who saved me from total utter embarrassment in front of the cool kids with one simple word, “Banana.” I hadn’t spoken to him in 30 years, but his wife read it and got in touch with me thinking that sounds like her Pete Simon. She wasn’t alone either, others contacted me thinking it was their Pete Simon. What a testament to a well-lived life that someone reads a random Twitter thread about somebody doing a good selfless deed and thinks it’s someone they know. The story went viral, and I decided this is how I want to use social media from here on out. Sometimes it’s a maudlin overcorrection of the old ugly days, but I don’t care. The reaction to the Pete Simon story still chokes me up. 

After enough time had passed, you wrote about seriously contemplating suicide. But during the dark period, did you think you could put the keyboard to the grindstone and write your way out of it? 

Absolutely. I was raised in a time when you just weren’t supposed to feel sad. At university, I remember snidely saying to a friend who was depressed, “There are starving children in Africa.” His reply was, “That doesn’t make me less sad.” I just didn’t get it. Until I was 30, my emotional register was always in neutral, some version of “slightly happy.” Then these big things started happening to me, but I believed I could hunker down and push through it. I’m grateful I survived. White-knuckling depression doesn’t work. It’s too dark. I ended up at an emergency room and the doctor there was lovely. In addition to Lexapro and sleep, he prescribed therapy, which because I’m Canadian, was covered by the health-care system. Dr. Gary was amazing; he changed the way I see so many things. 

Don’t try and do it alone. Always ask for help. 

You mentioned on the Paternal podcast that you “have to work at being a good dad.” As a father, what are you good at and what needs more attention? 

What I’m best at is my boys never have to wonder if they’re loved. I was terrified of the impact the divorce would have on them. My parents have been together for almost 60 years, the model of soulmates, so that’s all I knew. I read everything I could and took the advice of my new girlfriend, a child of divorce, who said all that matters is making the boys feel comfortable, safe and loved. Both my ex-wife and I have done a good job on that front. 

What can I do better? Patience. My older son Charley can be difficult. He makes me cry most days, usually for good reasons, but it’s hard raising an autistic child. Sometimes I look up and I’ve lost an entire day, which is frustrating. It’s not Charley’s fault, so I need to be more patient. If he wants me to watch him play Legos — not help him because I’ll screw it up — then I watch him play Legos

Do you have to remind yourself to give your other son Sam enough time and attention?

Luckily, no. We’re both huge soccer nuts — I’ve coached his team since he was four — so we watch games on the weekends and play in the yard all the time. With the coaching, I actually worry about spending too much time with Sam. But while Charley needs a lot of attention, he can also get lost in his own world reading a book for three hours. They balance each other out, a really interesting pair, so they make that aspect of parenting a lot less stressful.

One thing I dig about the book is the simplicity at its core, a basic reminder to be more humane because you can’t measure the immeasurable.

The concept of “everything you know is wrong” seems to be central to so much of modern analytics. I don’t think this is true at all. Not everything can be quantified; the human experience isn’t just data points. Assuming a creative thinker is wrong because it doesn’t match a spreadsheet is ridiculous. I’m all for science, statistics and rational decision-making, but I don’t buy the idea that any single tool is universally applicable in all situations. The book isn’t anti-Moneyball, it’s a call for nuance. The world isn’t black or white, which is how I viewed it in my 20s and into my 30s. I couldn’t have written it then. 

Pitching The Eye Test has been hard because at its core, the idea is, “You’re doing pretty well, but you could do a little better.” The book is an expression of doubts I’ve had about a lot of things. But one thing has been helpful to me, particularly in times of uncertainty: A beautiful creative person doing something good makes me feel a whole lot better. 

I share many of your concerns about technology, but seeing as we’re both middle-age dads who didn’t grow up with algorithms dictating our digital lives, do you think we’re in trouble, or are we just reaching our “Old Men Yell at Clouds” phase?

For obvious reasons, I don’t think social media is awesome for kids, but I go back-and-forth on the more expansive questions about technology and its implications. It saddens me that kids don’t necessarily have the same room for imagination that we had growing up — going outside and making up games with friends — because the machine offers whatever they want. Then again, kids in the 1970 and 1980s watched a lot of TV. I know I did, and I think I turned out alright. 

Broadly, one of the main things that bothers me about today’s technology is we know problems like online bullying cause real harm, but we act as if technology is a force of nature we just have to live with. Machines aren’t hurricanes, they’re human creations. We can turn a machine off until it’s fixed. Why are we treating social media as if it’s sacred? 

You yourself were a victim of the whims of a tech overlord when Away was canceled by Netflix, even though it had found an audience. What was that experience like?

I make a joke in The Eye Test that the book is “basically my revenge” for Away getting canceled after one season. It was a shock. We weren’t privy to any kind of internal analytics, but we know it was the number one show on Netflix for a few weeks, the longest show on top since Tiger King. It bothers me that there’s probably some algorithmic number or value out there dictating our fate and we didn’t even get to see it.

The experience of writing on Away itself was wonderful. I loved it. The show came about at the right time, just after I got divorced, when my finances were cratering and I didn’t have Esquire to fall back on. I was the oldest guy in the room with the least amount of experience. I’m so grateful I got the chance to work with, and learn from, all those amazing people. Away played a huge part in helping me get better. Not just financially, emotionally and spiritually as well. I don’t know why we didn’t get a second season — I wish we would have — but I cherish the time we had all the same.

In the book, you have a chapter about how people’s individual stories are central to being human in a way their personal “data” isn’t. You were writing it during the anti-vaxx explosion. How do you see the anti-vaxx crowd’s need to tell their story, one where they believe themselves to be the ones thinking differently?

Again, I’m not making an all-or-nothing argument, my fundamental point is that often people are better than the machines, and we need to recognize our collective humanity. It doesn’t mean everyone’s stories are valid or need to be heard. A dumb opinion is just that, a dumb opinion. It does say to me people need a story to make up their minds about things. Unfortunately, people pick-and-choose the story they want to hear, because they’re fallible. It’s human nature. The algorithms have fueled the division by spreading misinformation. It says something for the old media gatekeepers. I don’t think there was a huge backlash against the polio vaccine. The anti-vaccine thing is completely baffling, a total disconnect from all of the statistical evidence. 

Sometimes, the machines are better than us. 

I want to ask you about one specific part of your book, which is the assertion that perhaps the national COVID response would’ve been a lot better if, like doctors and nurses, people saw the dying faces of their fellow citizens to keep the dead from becoming more than a statistic. 

I was wearing a hazmat suit next to my mother as she died of COVID, and I’m conflicted about your hypothesis — not out of bitterness or cynicism — but because people’s need for self-preservation means looking away or deflecting in order to feel safer, and frankly, superior. It’s basically why everyone harps on comorbidities

Sorry you went through that, that’s just, shit. People take in so much more information than we’re designed to process, and it has to get sorted. A lot of scary information leading to uncertainty gets locked away in a box as a means of self-preservation. Analyzing auto accidents shows that driving is one of the most dangerous things we do on a regular basis, but you can’t think about it or you’d never get in the car. During COVID, we look at the statistics so we can say, “Well, I’m not a smoker over 75,” so it becomes somebody else’s problem. The number of people dying from COVID is so big that it’s an abstraction, which can be manipulated as people see fit. How many times did we hear about the percentage of people surviving COVID? It’s an illusion created to feel safe. Can you imagine .04 percent of the 7 billion people on Earth dying of COVID? 

The numbers used by people like me to comfort ourselves ignore people like your mom. It’s deeply anti-human. We insulate ourselves as we go about our daily lives, but the hospital up the road is filled. Doctors and nurses are still seeing people die of COVID every day. If the rest of us were as well, at least the victims wouldn’t simply be numbers on a data tracker. Maybe I’m wrong, but if we watched the victims die, I hope we would have acted differently as a society and not just gone about our daily lives. 

Let’s end on a hopeful note. Circling back to your 2022 resolution to be less emo, here is how The Eye Test wraps up, “We’ll never know everything that’s waiting for us on the other side. But we can close our eyes and imagine the life we hope to find there, and then open them and start making our way.” So that’s super emo…

I was clearly listening to My Chemical Romance when I wrote that. 

Your emo call to arms is “be a little bit better,” are you hopeful people can do that?

I am, because we’ve all seen people do awesome things. We’re all capable of being better than robots if we decide to be. Look at a missile, it can drop bombs on Afghanistan, or it can launch people into space. It’s the same human-made instrument, and we choose to do both. I would like it exclusively used for space exploration because astronauts make the world a better, more imaginative place for all of us. The Eye Test is here to remind you that people aren’t always terrible — you get enough of that in your social media feed — and wonderful things happen all the time. I want the book to try and help change people’s perspective, do you want to feel defeated or inspired?