Interview with Tom MacWright: “If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules”

Tom MacWrightTom MacWright is a guitarist in Teen Mom and keyboardist at Mapbox.

Tom was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?

A long time ago I made the Swem Signal, which basically made my college’s library a little more navigable. Then I started at Development Seed and helped make a lot of data-driven websites, until the maps on the websites sort of took over and we entered into this three-year vision quest that is Mapbox.

I like making stuff. I wasn’t into maps as a kid and I get lost all the time. But geo is fun because it’s connected to everything else, just like everything else.

Q: What does your typical day at MapBox look like?

Most of the time I wear my Programmer Hat, which means that my day might have a meeting or two, but it’s mostly hanging out in our garage/office with a full-screen text editor and headphones on, listening to, currently, Darwin Deez. But it can be the opposite of that too – we’re almost at fifty people but there aren’t real job descriptions yet, so I also might handle helping people on support or writing for the blog. I’m playing it cool but it’s actually the most incredible job in the world.

Q: According to your Twitter bio you are first a guitarist and then a keyboardist (coder). I am jealous (I put down the guitar many years ago). How do you reconcile the two? Or do they complement each other?

There’s definitely something to the combination, since it’s so common in this field. Just at Mapbox, Jeff & Ian did sound engineering, Ryan & Vladimir are in bands (Collapser & Obiymy Doschu), and Tristen went to school for jazz performance. Just the other week, we played with these cool folks The Can’t Tells and one of them is also a coder who works for a Brooklyn food startup. It might be something about the sort of creativity required for coding, but also: demographics.

It isn’t too hard to reconcile the two, as long as your band doesn’t make the big time – work from 9 to 7, band practice from 7 to 9:30, shows a few times a month. There isn’t too much technology involved in the kind of music we make, so besides making our website, there’s isn’t too much “synergy.” I mean, we released an actual vinyl record. I don’t even have a record player.

I have been able to slip my music into a few Mapbox videos, though.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

It’s probably better to address ‘hipster’ and ‘geohipster’ separately:

Hipster’s meaning expired in 2009. Most of style’s emblems have smeared into the mainstream of upper-middle-class young white existence. Everyone wears nerd glasses. Non-skinny jeans are a distant memory. Indie folk never really made it, but it emerged from chemical waste with a four-on-the-floor beat and overwrought costumes and is really a hit now.

Or at least I don’t hear it much anymore: the last time was a hackathon where I brought up the idea of a PBR price index and it sparked an hour-long rant about the ‘hipster invasion’ so I zoned out and made some things instead of talking.

As far as thinking outside the box: I don’t think the world, or most work, encourages creativity. It’s a total privilege to be at a place where you can try new things and have fun. When you have that privilege, it’s your responsibility to use it.

Shunning the mainstream? In the narrow world of geo, absolutely: the practice of GIS, only 50 years young, has more norm-enforcement, standards, critiques, best practices and unwritten rules than we could ever need. If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules.

Q: What do you think about some Geohipster readers’ concerns that “geohipsterism” (and hipsterism in general) implies exclusivity and elitism and engenders division?

I agree with David Foster Wallace that attitudes generate words much more than words generate attitudes.

You don’t have to read between the lines to see exclusivity, elitism, and division. But a lot of it is just misunderstanding.

Take the Spherical Mercator projection for example: it introduces wild levels of distortion. It isn’t good-looking at a worldwide level. The reason why it’s still so popular in software is technical. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard to explain without some coding background and knowledge of caches and tiles and layered maps. Since few traditional cartographers understand that stuff, they criticize the decision as if it were arbitrary: why would anyone ignore their centuries of effort and whiff it so bad?

Likewise, through the eyes of someone who likes simplicity and writes code, the ‘datum’ system of geographers seems absurd. Why would we actively resist a global standard system? It’s like the world of text encodings before UTF8, except nobody sees it as a problem. But if you look deeper, there’s something to it – datums are a real attempt to be future-proof in a world of continental plates. WGS84 doesn’t just ‘fix’ that problem, and there are more cultural facets than first appear. What about people who know UTM by heart?

That is to say, with the embrace of tech in geo, the landscape changed. Some people know tech, some people know geo, some know a bit of each. Everyone has a lot to learn, it’s better to be helpful than judgmental.

Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?

The majority of geospatial data is Microsoft Excel 97 spreadsheets with lists of street addresses slated for junk mail delivery.

No, but seriously, people who consider themselves to be GIS people definitely trend more towards defense, environment, and government, and they all use software that comes on a DVD in shrink wrap.

Q: Will MapBox ever enter the mainstream? Will you be happy or sad if that happens? Would that be like Arcade Fire winning a Grammy?

What we’re making is the infrastructure that shiny and famous things will be built upon. So yeah, we’ll win a Grammy, but it’ll be for best Producer.

Q: What is new with Teen Mom? Did you find a new bassist yet?

We’re still trying to fill the spot, so I’m playing bass for the interim. We’re recording a new single this month, and then working on our first LP as a follow-up to Gilly. We’re also doing a solo album each, just to keep thing interesting.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?

This quote:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

_why the lucky stiff