Someone Finally Invented Screen-Blocking Glasses
Ivan Cash cleverly critiques large corporations — and they love him for it
There’s a running gag in The Circle, Dave Eggers’s 2013 Silicon Valley satire, in which more monitors are added to a person’s desk as they rise in the ranks at a very FacebookGoogleAppleTwitter-esque tech giant. At one point, the protagonist’s desk balances nine screens, each beckoning, summoning, and passive-aggressively demanding her acknowledgment.
Eggers was onto something. In 2018, screens are everywhere. Screens are on our desks at work, of course, but they’re also flashing information on the subway, at bus stops, cycling ads on restroom walls, in elevators, displaying cooking segments in doctors’ waiting rooms, broadcasting the NBA at restaurants, and news in the backs of taxis. They’re streaming at us from the gas pump, the elliptical machine, and the airplane seat back. They’re in our pockets and on our wrists.
It’s gotten so bad, the New York Times recently reported, that parents in Silicon Valley won’t even let their kids near a screen, charging their nannies with enforcing rules around the very technology they themselves create.
Ivan Cash, a 32-year-old creative director, filmmaker, and artist living in Oakland, California, thinks he has a solution: He and his collaborators, including head of product Scott Blew, have created IRL Glasses, tinted shades capable of blocking most screens, turning the unceasing flow of images into a set of blissful blank slates. A Kickstarter campaign launched in October with the modest goal of raising $25,000 to create a beta version, which boast an ’80s-style design, inspired by John Carpenter’s They Live. As of this writing, IRL Glasses has attracted $140,920 in backing. (No word yet on whether they’re planning a kids’ version.)
Cash, who has positioned himself somewhere in a Venn diagram that includes culture jammer, internet era ad man, and viral huckster, cites Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Adbusters, and other provocateurs as inspirations. His previous projects include Snail Mail My Email, which crowdsourced and delivered hand drawn mail art based on people’s emails; Selfless Portraits, wherein people’s Facebook avatars were reinterpreted by strangers; and a smattering of official-looking No Tech Zone signs posted around San Francisco, California, in 2015.
Far from a Luddite who wants to you to replace your iPhone X with a tin can and string, Cash is savvy about getting his message out with some of the targets of his critiques, including Facebook and Airbnb, both of which have hired his Cash Studios for promotional campaigns. This makes Cash both a tech critic and an occasional co-conspirator, an anti-marketing marketing guy for the post-sellout age.
With the IRL Glasses fundraiser still going on, I sat down with Cash at a bar in Oakland where he carefully considered his words, made intense eye contact, and never once took out his phone.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Medium: What were you like as a kid?
Ivan Cash: I grew up without TV and video games, so I definitely feel like that put me on a path toward being fascinated by culture and media but not having the means to access it in the same way.
That’s cruel. You were deprived of some of life’s greatest joys.
Amen! My parents were hippies and didn’t want their kids looking at commercials and shitty media… Growing up, we lived in a really rural part of upstate New York, building forts in the woods, fishing. Everyone else had cable. When I went over to friends’ houses, it was me eating all the candy and watching all the TV I could.
So you were kind of a weirdo?
I was the only Jewish kid in my school and I got bullied for that. I felt very disconnected and a lot of my fascination with the media world came from being a total outsider and trying to bridge that divide. When I saw artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey who didn’t ask for permission — they were like, “Hey, I’m putting this here and you have no choice but to acknowledge this!”, something clicked. I see a lot of commonality to street art and the internet: It’s nonhierarchical. Anyone can say anything to a large audience of people who are just passing by.
Were you a punk?
I wanted to be a punk, but I wasn’t cool enough to be a punk. My whole childhood, up until high school, was wanting to be a jock and not being accepted by the jocks and trying to make that fit. Finally in college, I started to doing street art.
How long have you lived online?
I think freshman year of high school, or maybe last year of middle school, my parents got a computer with internet.
When did your skepticism about media and technology start to creep in?
Well, I have skepticism, but I still embrace it. I think it’s amazing to look someone up and reach out to them and say, “Yo, your shit’s dope.” I think I probably had to go too far in one direction. Very quickly after I got my dream job in Amsterdam [for ad agency Wieden+Kennedy], I was like, “Fuck, this is not what I’m about.” The emails are what really got to me. You can never catch up. After five months, I was like, “Life’s too short.” I broke my contract and came back.
You were washed up at 25.
Totally. But I had had this idea to turn emails into letters. After I quit, I had nothing better to do, so I decided to do Snail Mail My Email. That totally changed my career. Things were very different after that. A lot of brands reached out and said, “Hey, can we work with you guys?”
You seem like a hustler. I mean that in a positive way.
I’ll take it. I totally am.
Where does that come from?
I guess I’ve always had a restlessness, like an existential angst or an itch that needs to be scratched. I’m very aware that time is short and there are a lot of things that seem wrong in the world. Not that I believe art is this big, grand solution, but I do believe it’s one of the ways we invoke the change we want to see in the world.
You could be working with Xeroxes and wheat paste, but you’ve figured out a way to partner with these huge corporations and use their distribution channels.
Honestly, it’s a blessing and a curse. I differentiate making money and getting press. Snail Mail My Email didn’t make any money. I probably lost money with the time I spent on that. It was a labor of love working 14 hour days for 30 straight days. What it’s done for me is give me portfolio pieces that seem attractive to brands, speaking opportunities, all these things… I don’t have an independent revenue model, so it’s all being funded by the commercial work I’m doing. As much as it sucks to have two jobs, I don’t have one without the other.
Tell me about the motivation behind the IRL glasses.
I’m not preaching against technology. I use technology all the time. And if anything, I feel like I can be so empathetic because I use technology all the time and I feel burned out a lot. The irony of doing this IRL Glasses Kickstarter campaign is that I’m online more than I was. Obviously, there’s a certain demographic of people who would be drawn to IRL glasses that are already in this headspace of “technology isn’t just good; we want to find balance.” I’m happy for them to get a pair of glasses. But I’m most excited and intrigued by people who have just started asking these questions but maybe haven’t been as explicit or direct about confronting their relationship with technology.
How do they work?
Normal TV screens work with vertical polarized filters; our glasses have horizontal filters. If you rotate glasses 90 degrees, you can blackout TV. I’m still learning about this technology every day, but to the best of my knowledge they work with LED screens. They don’t work on phones, unfortunately. This product is far from what we want it to be. The product that the Kickstarter backers get is the beta pair.
Aren’t they kind of a just novelty to make a point?
At this juncture, I would say so. More than a practical product? Absolutely. I suspect people who buy this will bring it to a sports bar to show friends, having it be a desk piece or a coffee table piece. Our real intention in this is to validate the market and show that there’s a real sincere desire for a product like this. I’m inspired by the Light Phone and Yondr. IRL Glasses are just another drop in the bucket. Every backer is an endorsement not just of the product but the idea that we deserve a break from technology and ads.
Are you worried John Carpenter is gonna come around and say, “Hey, I thought of this in 1988.”
The opposite! We reached out to him. We’d love an endorsement. Even if he threw a lawsuit at us, that would be great. We just want some acknowledgment.
How do you balance being a critic of these corporations and occasionally being a partner with them?
It’s on a case by case basis. I’ve gotta pay the bills with whatever I can do that doesn’t feel totally unethical.
So then, isn’t the criticism and culture jamming just part of your work portfolio, in a way?
Sure. When I did the snail mail project, I assumed my working with corporations was over. That project was done as a pure art piece. But the fact is, that got me a meeting with Facebook, who hired me despite the fact that I’d made a project called Facebook Sabbatical [encouraging users to take a break from the product]. The question is always, “What’s the selling out point?”
Or does selling out even exist anymore?
I hope so. Otherwise, brands and creativity are totally synonymous. To me, that’s not good.
But you still seem somewhat upbeat about technology despite your misgivings.
It’s like a survival tactic. I struggle with depression. The loneliness that I tried to escape in my childhood was a blessing in that it led me to do projects to connect to people. Already, I feel like I’m inundated with the emotional challenges of being a sensitive, introspective human. I do a silent meditation retreat every year, trying to figure it all out and knowing that it’s all a mystery. I don’t know what the alternative is.