“What is Missing,” a case study

It’s hard to be anything but impressed by Maya Lin’s “What is Missing?” memorial project. Upon entering onto the home page, you’re greeted by thousands of travelling symbols and dots that bring to mind the dynamism of our planet and migration of our species. Every dot on the world map tells a story of extinction on our planet, sortable through a multi-layered filtering system. Each story is beautifully curated, with an intriguing photo and nicely written text. Every video is a miniature art house production. Take for instance, this short film on the depletion of antarctic krill from our oceans:

With the click of a button, the map can transform into a timeline. And with every selection you make, the content of the website rearranges itself as if in a dance. Everything is choreographed. And on top of all of this, there’s also a functionality to let you share your own memory. Here’s a screen shot of the memory I just uploaded:

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Currently, my memory is under review.

“What is Missing?” is what Maya Lin, an artist famous around the world for her memorials, calls her “last memorial.” It’s a memorial to all the species that recently have been lost, or are about to be lost in the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history, and the only mass extinction caused by a single species: man kind.

After my initial sense of awe wore off from exploring the “What is Missing” project, I began to poke holes in it and look for all the ways it needed to be improved (the natural response of any critical graduate student). I noted how my computer loudly hummed, labored by the project’s tab being opened in my browser. I looked skeptically at all the pretty symbols that danced around my computer, thinking that beauty and effectiveness are not one in the same. Maya Lin broke the cardinal rule of design being “form follows function,” I thought. It took me a few minutes to find my way around the site, and develop an understanding of all of its functionality – to be truly quality shouldn’t the platform be more self-explanatory? And then I questioned, that by being such a demanding website and in need of the highest of internet speeds, was this really a platform designed for everyone?

Finally, I considered the cost. I have no idea how much “What is Missing?” cost to produce, but I’m guessing it must be up in the several hundreds of dollars at least. It took five years, and a team of people to produce. So it’s hardly a project to emulate, unless you, like Maya Lin, have all the resources and time in the world.

But all of these criticisms miss the point, and aren’t particularly constructive. Is the project perfect? No. But is it totally awesome? Yes. Is it a worthwhile use of $1M? Totally. The “What is Missing” project isn’t supposed to be an easily searched archive of every species lost. As Maya Lin explains, we lose a new species from our planet every 20 minutes of every day. So the website isn’t exhaustive. But the point isn’t to find that particular species you’re looking for (there’s no search option), it’s to get lost in all of the species we’re losing, and understand the value of every one. We’re intended to walk away feeling the gravity of all that’s being lost due to our unsustainable lifestyles. I think it’s important to remember that Maya Lin isn’t an educator in the most pure sense, but an artist with a message. And the more time I spend exploring “What is Missing?” the stronger her message is heard.

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