ISSN 1548-5374 Volume 4 Number 1

enjoying new media • software aesthetics

Making A List

a review of To-Do List by Sasha Cagen
(Simon and Schuster, New York, 2007)
$16.00 1-4165-3469-5

by Rachel Lee

The tropical notepaper features a baby, clad in a foam pineapple costume, looking profoundly bemused yet confused. A list of ailments begins below the fruit-encased toddler in a section titled “Keeping Slow and Lingering Death In Perspective.”

This is a classic example-with the exception of its unconventional subject-of the list: a series of items to be remembered. Lists demonstrate an ability to formulate plans in the hopes of achieving some desired state, to connect who we are at the present to the past and future.

The importance of list-writing grows steadily in a culture of ever-expanding possibilities. As we develop the capacity to connect to further recesses of the globe or enhance our experiences in familiar settings, writing lists enables us to sort through the enormous amount of information we accumulate from existing in a high-tech world, prioritize it, and seek action that moves toward progress. Lists don't guarantee easier lives, but they can lend a little satisfaction and even hope.

from the meticulously planned Thanksgiving dinner, to the pros-and-cons of remaining in a relationship

Sasha Cagen approaches writing lists from an often overlooked angle. Her collection of submitted lists, To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us, explores the 20- to 35-year-old experience, with a few exceptions. Ranging from the meticulously planned Thanksgiving dinner, to the pros-and-cons of remaining in a relationship, these lists draw from the values of Cagen's intended demographic.

Take, for example, a segment from “Ultimate To Do List.”

16. Explore underwater wreckage

17. Involved in archaeological excavation

18. Drive in a demolition derby

19. Discover something

20. Get what I consider very good at guitar

“Ultimate To Do List” reveals the larger cultural values that shape its creator's aspirations. Emphasis placed on ephemeral thrills and exoticism presumably lies in contrast to the writer's current state, a situation much like our own. By shifting the focus from ordinary, domestic affairs to desired outcomes, lists from this collection straddle a line between escapism and reality. The success of this collection resides in its paradoxical nature-an appeal stemming from its ability to remain grounded in what's common and relatable, while reaching for goals lying outside this range.

Cagen invites the reader to start a similar list called “My Ultimate To-Do List.” The introduction of this interactive element intends to change the reader's perception of what it means to write a list. No longer are lists confined to the series of groceries scrawled by time-pressed soccer moms or the annual inventories penned by highfalutin film critics. Lists can be fanciful whims, suitable conduits for bouts of idealism and wishful thinking. List-writing is for young men and women who aren't afraid to dream big.

The concept of writing lists undergoes a transformation under Cagen's supervision, metamorphosing into journal entries distilled to their most salient points. Looking at lists in a category called Relationships, we see that creating lists forces these writers to take a step back in order to evaluate their situations. It allows them to see trends in their behavior and preferences, optimizing their introspection. Reviewing a list of ideal qualities or the good and bad elements of a partner's behavior establishes a sense of control that poring over months of weepy journal entries never could. Lists are still highly subjective, but they're compact and simple to read. They facilitate the communication of difficult truths, while allowing their writers' to come to terms with reality in a simplified way.

the voyeuristic and interactive possibilities of reading strangers’ lists

Cagen opens up the — to borrow a phrase from the book's cover— “voyeuristic and interactive” possibilities of reading strangers’ lists, making the practice playful and edgy. She includes a short explanation from the list-writer and, on the opposite page, one of her catchy one-liners. For “A Soon-To-Be Divorcée Tries to Move On,” a list of tasks designed to speed a woman's emotional recovery, Cagen comments, “What was she doing with underwear from the eighties in 2003?”

Catty remark aside, this open-ended presentation boasts its own appeal. Withholding a solid context for the list's creation lets us invent the more concrete details surrounding the list-writer's former self, because in reading this forgotten list, one can imagine the experiences, personality and desires that compelled it to be written in the first place. What we see is the list-writers' day-to-day existence-it's what Cagen fondly calls a “snapshot” of a specific point in time. The physical and psychological distance inherent to reading a stranger's list allows us to invent and relate to these list-writers in a way that bypasses the potentially awkward, getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship. In a supposedly isolated, postmodern social landscape, this idea is tempting.

Not only does Cagen simulate the intimacy of a relationship, she unveils a paradox in her format. On one hand, she attaches to list-writing the highly personal notion of honest introspection. This enforces the divide between the list-writer and the reader, while establishing the latter as voyeur. On the other hand, Cagen invites the audience to react to the lists and create their own. While not interactive in the strictest sense, list-writing takes on a new communal dimension that promotes sensitivity and reciprocity, key components of effective communication.

This reincarnation of the list bears a striking semblance to a simplified weblog, though the usual functions of the list and weblog differ significantly. The main aim of a weblog, communication, aids in the presentation of ideas and direct responses to them, whereas lists serve as reminders of significant items. Despite these differences, this development in list-writing marks the spreading influence of internet culture into the most intuitive of tasks.

Blog-like interfaces and virtual social networks, customizable applications that adapt to our preferences and habits, boost our expectations of how technology can make life more efficient on an individual level. When this heightened expectation spurs innovation in our approach to simple tasks like writing lists, when coffeemakers percolate on schedule and on-line retailers make customized suggestions, our values change along with our environment.

List-writing, then, embodies a paradigm shift. In a grander scheme of technological advancement and increased connectivity, Cagen's collection showcases a modern value system intent on optimizing the simplest tasks. Her stab at uniting the list-writers of the country represents a movement toward a reinvention of the mundane chore according to its function, form and content-a trend that shows no sign of ever slowing down. Take note, Cagen's lists are making a mark of their own.

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