"Vivencias" (Visual Collaborative)

By Ade Olufeko
August 2019

Husani Oakley is an EVP and Director of Technology at Deutsch Inc. Based in New York City, Husani’s global contributions to innovation and rich media products spans various disciplines, garnering recognition around the country such as invitations to speak at the White House by the Obama Administration. As a main feature in Visual Collaborative’s “Vivencias” interview series, Husani discusses the evolution of his work and thoughts on the continuous relationship between humans and technology.

Photo  courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

Photo courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

(VC) Tell us about your upbringing and how it relates to your creative perspective of New York City. Have you always been a resident?

(Husani) I grew up twelve miles west of the city limits, in a cute little liberal town in the suburbs of New Jersey. And as a child, most of what I knew about NYC (New York City) I got from television, like everyone else in the world, no matter my physical proximity. Hell, you can stand on certain streets in town and see the skyline, but I thought of The Cosby Show and Night Court and Living Single as taking place somewhere on the other side of the world. NYC was the mysterious city where the parents of friends worked, the sort of place we’d take school trips to, and that’s about it.

Many (many!) years later, I spent a few years living and working in San Francisco, where one of the strangest things I experienced was the famous San Francisco microclimate. There’s something about the ocean and the city’s terrain that lets you leave your house in shorts, but need a sweater by the time you cross the street.

The worldview of towns surrounding New York City seem to have microcultures instead of microclimates. A person who grows up in Town A has an entirely different experience than someone who grows up in Town B, even though both towns are next door to each other, and both towns are 30 minutes away from the center of the universe. And the microcultures that mirror the city — in terms of their energy, their art, their acceptance of difference — tend to have stops on the regional commuter rail.

Some towns have it, some don’t. A direct line into the beating heart of the city. I had friends whose parents took that direct line every day, and they brought a little bit of the city’s energy back with them. But if you drive a few minutes away from your home, into a town without a train station, it’s an entirely different story.

Photo  courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

Photo courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

I thrived on diversity. Not the boring, woke, corporate meaning of that word, but the real meaning, the on-the-street meaning, on the exciting mix of microcultures you can only experience here — riding a subway with people from all walks of life, living in a building where people spoke languages I’d never even heard of, working with people who grew up rich, poor, and in-between.

So I grew up in a town that accepted art, and creativity, and difference. Perhaps more than the typical American suburb, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I got my first industry job shortly after graduating high school, and as my friends were going off to college, I became like their parents, one of those people taking that direct line into the city every day. The main difference, of course, was that I was incredibly young to be doing so.

After spending more and more time in NYC, it didn’t take me very long to realize a few things that changed the direction of my life:

First, I needed New York City like a plant needs water. This city was where I belonged, and I was surprised that it’d taken my entire life (such that it was at that point) to realize that fact. It wasn’t going to be enough for me to live near the city, I had to be in it, of it.

Second, I thrived on diversity. Not the boring, woke, corporate meaning of that word, but the real meaning, the on-the-street meaning, on the exciting mix of microcultures you can only experience here — riding a subway with people from all walks of life, living in a building where people spoke languages I’d never even heard of, working with people who grew up rich, poor, and in-between. There’s something magical about experiencing the breadth of humanity — every day, multiple times a day — that drove (and continues to drive) my curiosity about the world we live in.

And third, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to — I needed to — make things for/on the Internet. I hadn’t realized that before. Technology was a core part of who I was, but I hadn’t thought it was what I’d end up doing. At the time, the consumer web was just taking off, the dot- com boom just getting started. It was still a strange thing to tell people what I did for a living. No one understood it, least of all, my mother. Everyone thought I’d be successful, but everyone freaked out when I said I’d be successful on the Internet, mainly because no one really knew what that meant. But NYC knew what it meant. It embraced me, and it embraced my dreams, and I haven’t looked back since.

(VC) There is no argument that you are a technology influencer with an impressive background working across many industries. You presently serve as a director of technology for Deutsch Inc, was this a natural career progression for you or it all happened according to a specific plan?

(Husani) I don’t think people should try to plan their exact career path. I certainly didn’t. I was supposed to have ended up a professional musician, and if you talked to teenaged-Husani and told him what I do for a living, he’d probably be surprised and amused.

That experience taught me a very important lesson — serendipity is real. You have to leave yourself open to the ebbs and flows of the universe. Sometimes, random opportunities present themselves. We can’t control when or how or why they happen.

For most of my late childhood, the plan had always been art — specifically, music — as a primary path, with technology as a strong second. My sax was an extension of my fingers, but my computer was an extension of my brain.

Immediately after high school, I’d been playing in the pit band in a regional theatre production of Cabaret, having the time of my life, and assuming that the rest of my life would pretty much be the same. I got in late one night from a performance, fired up my computer, and started randomly looking at job openings. After a few minutes, I found a post about internships at a “digital agency” (whatever that was — remember, this is 1998) at a company called AGENCY.COM. On a whim, I sent an email with the extremely thin resume of a barely 18 year old kid, and then went to bed.

Late the next morning, I had a response in my inbox, asking me to come in for an interview. A couple of days later, I was an intern. A few weeks into the internship, I was hired as a full-time developer. And the rest is history.

That experience taught me a very important lesson — serendipity is real. You have to leave yourself open to the ebbs and flows of the universe. Sometimes, random opportunities present themselves. We can’t control when or how or why they happen. What we can control, however, and what I’ve done my best to control, is how ready I am to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind, and I believe that to be a truth of our reality. I’ve done my best to be ready — armed with knowledge, armed with the willingness to take risks — so when those doors open, I’m ready to walk through them.

But relying on serendipity alone isn’t enough. Eventually, I decided to think of my career growth in big, high-level themes. Not plans — themes. I’ll spend some time learning a category, then use that knowledge to make something, then learn another category. Rinse and repeat.

(VC) In our present times AI and Big Data are no longer buzzwords but a reality. What are your thoughts on “Transhumanism“. Do you foresee dangers or there are societal benefits to reap from this technology trajectory?

(Husani) We live in the future, and we are on the precipice of this future being utopian or dystopian. What a time to be alive.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between AI, or artificial intelligence, and AGI, artificial general intelligence. Artificial intelligence is what we have now — using machines to detect patterns and signals in data. That’s what powers your GPS, your spellcheck, the ads you see. Artificial general intelligence is another thing entirely, it is creating a conscious machine. Something that can think and learn without human intervention. We are decades away from that.

But let’s say we finally create AGI. What happens then? Science fiction is full of stories based on this moment. We assume we’ve created something in our own image, quite literally, since the technical architecture is based on how the human brain works — if that’s true, what happens to us?

But if we are going by the strict definition of Transhumanism, we’re talking about combining humanity with the tools humanity has made. How do those tools improve our lives? How can a tool be so important that it becomes a part of us? Is that even a good thing? Do we know enough about the universe to do this? Maybe transhumanism is the logical endpoint of the entire history of our toolmaking. Is this any different than replacing a limb? Or an artificial heart? Why do we think the brain is somehow special? So many questions.

I’m not sure I have the answers, but isn’t it exciting to be alive when we’re figuring everything out?

If you don’t know what success means to you, you’ll never know if you’ve achieved it. And you’ll forever have a voice whispering in your head, asking you why you haven’t made it yet. Whatever “it” is.

(VC) As someone who has participated at the White House’s technology events and a proponent of the LGBTQ community in the United States, considerably privileged as well based on your professional experience, what can you candidly tell aspiring young people about success and risk in business?

(Husani) Success does not happen on its own. Success is made by a combination of decisions and luck, with decisions based upon the information you know at the time, and luck based on factors entirely outside your control.

But it all starts with a deceptively simple question: what is your definition of success? Everyone sees success differently, entirely dependent on their particular perspective. For some, success is buying a yacht and naming it after your childhood pet. For others, success is being able to support your family with your art.

If you don’t know what success means to you, you’ll never know if you’ve achieved it. And you’ll forever have a voice whispering in your head, asking you why you haven’t made it yet. Whatever “it” is.

But once you know what success means to you — and it really has to be your own personal definition, not based on what you see on Instagram — there’s another important question to answer: how much are you willing to risk in
order to achieve it? Because success does not happen without risk.

Are you willing to risk your time? You may spend months on a thing that doesn’t work. Are you willing to risk your relationships, your friends, even your family? You may work so hard on a thing, you see your colleagues more than your partner.

That probably sounds incredibly scary, especially to people who are just starting out. It is scary. But life is scary, creation is scary. Are you willing to risk looking silly by standing up in a meeting and sharing an idea you had the night before? People might not like your idea. People may snicker and say your idea will never work. But what if they don’t? Balancing risk just beyond your comfort zone with your desire to win — that’s success.

(Also, while it may be obvious, I should probably state for the record that both of my invitations to the White House came from the Obama Administration. People who look like me don’t get invited by the current occupants of that building. Of course, people who look like me — and people who don’t — are hard at work to ensure that the current occupants are evicted next year.)

(VC) Observing the rising despondency of political movements in parts of the east coast of the United States, as a creative trailblazer are you more critical about your own career as a man or more optimistic given the trajectory of the present times?

(Husani) Before the rise of social media, the Web was the Wild West, with a freedom of expression only limited by one’s imagination and knowledge of the toolset. The way you presented yourself — or your art — to the world was entirely up to you. There were no templates, no profile pages. And while you needed to teach yourself the technical skills to create a website, and once you did, cyberspace was your oyster. Do whatever you want, whenever you want, and someone on the other side of the planet may just find you and be moved by what you’ve created. Your creation was the digital version of you.

Photo  courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

Photo courtesy of Deutsch Inc.

(VC) Observing the rising despondency of political movements in parts of the east coast of the United States, as a creative trailblazer are you more critical about your own career as a man or more optimistic given the trajectory of the present times?

(Husani) Before the rise of social media, the Web was the Wild West, with a freedom of expression only limited by one’s imagination and knowledge of the toolset. The way you presented yourself — or your art — to the world was entirely up to you. There were no templates, no profile pages. And while you needed to teach yourself the technical skills to create a website, and once you did, cyberspace was your oyster. Do whatever you want, whenever you want, and someone on the other side of the planet may just find you and be moved by what you’ve created. Your creation was the digital version of you.

The situation we currently find ourselves in as a society, and specifically American society, has plenty of root causes, but there’s one core reason that technologists and digitally-focused creatives of a certain age have to come to grips with, myself included — we built a medium that allowed evil to flourish.

We were so blinded by the freedom of the new tools, tools that got more and more advanced as we learned more and more what they were actually capable of, we forgot to build the guardrails as we built the Information Superhighway. While we focused on what the tools could do, we forgot about what humans would do.

And so here we are. Now we live in a world where most people think that the “Internet” is a combination of FacebookSnapchatTikTok, and Instagram. Those platforms are amazing, but they’re all examples of software primarily built to extract data from humans and convert that data into money.

Ain’t nothin’ wrong with making money. I am happily and proudly in a business that uses these platforms to help our clients get their stories in front of people. But the algorithms that power these platforms now get to define not only how people express themselves, but also what they think and feel. This technology gets to define how humanity sees the world, and how humanity sees itself. And no good can come from that unless we get our shit together, and fast. All that being said, I’m optimistic. I have faith in humanity. It may take us awhile, and we may have to sacrifice more than we know, but we always seem to find a way out at the last possible second.

Our technology can certainly destroy us. But technology used correctly can do more than save us from our own weaknesses. It can elevate us. It can save lives, it can help us understand each other, it can help us be more than our DNA. As long as we keep it in its proper place — a tool made by humans to help humans make sense of the strangeness that is our reality.

(VC) At this stage of your career considering your present commitments, If you could work alongside any notable personality or enterprise. Who would it be and why?

(Husani) Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the Web. While it absolutely seems obvious and commonplace now, at the time, the underlying technology Sir Berners-Lee invented was groundbreaking.

I wouldn’t want to work with the Sir Berners-Lee of 1989, I’d want to work with him now. The World Wide Web turned 30 this year, and I’d be honored to have the opportunity to not only understand what the inventor thinks of his creation now, but to work together on building what comes next.

(VC) Some mention the Renaissance as an art period they admire. If you can time-warp back to any era, what time would it be and why?

(Husani) Mid 1940s, New York City, the jazz community — specifically to experience the rise of bebop. A musical form totally different than the big-band and swing that came before. That must have been such a magical, on-the-edge, exciting time. Reminds me of the early days of the Internet; artists creating without a care in the world for what the rest of society thought.

(VC) What kind of work, commercial or personal if any can the world expect from Husani Oakley within the next 5 years?

(Husani) At Deutsch, we have a group focused on artificial intelligence called Great Machine. Our mission is to figure out how to create AI for our clients that stays connected to humanity. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to continue this work.

When I’m not in the office, I’m working on something that has absolutely nothing to do with technology — amusingly enough, television! I’ve been writing a few TV pilots for awhile, and I’m hoping to finish them soon; maybe you’ll turn on Netflix or Hulu or a streaming service yet to be invented and watch a season of one of my shows.

(VC) Anything else you would like our audience to know?

(Husani) Make things. Doesn’t matter what, or how, or why. Just make things. Leave a mark on the world while you can.

Husani Oakley