Offline thinking

I get a wave of nostalgia when I read a John LeCarre novel. Not for the simplicity of Cold War politics or for spy novels written with a real sense of literary style, but for the physicality of the world George Smiley inhabits. Trying to figure out a particular thorny problem, he grabs a notebook, brings the rotary telephone over to the table, and between making a couple of phone calls, thinking a lot and writing a bit he comes to some conclusion.

I miss the quiet of years gone by, the unconnectedness, and when I read small passages like that a strange bit of longing for that world sweeps over me.

And while there is a certain nostalgia here, I can’t help but think there is something bigger too, that we have lost something important to society, something beyond the aethestic of a clean table, and scratchpad, and a rotary phone.

I remember one particular month in 1992, for example, that I was struggling with some difficult articles on linguistic style. I’d pound my head against some of the text, armed only with a few reference works on the table at Dunkin’ Donuts, and get as far as I could by positing possible interpretations and checking them against the text. And then I’d mark out what things I didn’t understand, pick out relevant articles in the endnotes, and make a note to photocopy them next time I was at the library.

Here’s the dated bit: by the time I got articles commenting on the original, I’d often find I disagreed with their analysis. I had had time to solidify my opinion before joining the conversation.

Business has had its related losses, some very early on. My father, an old DEC guy, once noted to me the difference that Excel had brought to the enterprise in the late 1980s. Before spreadsheets, he said, you’d spend a lot of time hashing out assumptions. You’d get them nailed down, and then you’d do the math. After Excel, he said, the temptation to play with assumptions until you got the result you wanted was too great.

I mean, if we bump this figure up by 0.12, and this one down by half a percent, we’re golden, right?

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that all these things are connected, and we’re still trying to deal with them. No George Smiley, the CIA collects all internet traffic in America, and tries to data mine it, without so much as positing an assumption first. A kid reads Roman Jakobson, and is immediately exposed to other people’s summaries of the article he has just read, before he has fully parsed it himself — before he has a chance to disagree. An accountant fudges Excel inputs just enough that a projection becomes a positive indicator.

They are all tied together, and together they represent one of the problems of our age. When conversation or computing power is readily available we tend to jump to it very fast. But for those conversations and computations to be meaningful, we have to enter into them with a contribution of our own.

And that requires us to wait a bit.

What worries me about the modern world is not that amateurs are taking over. It’s that the amateurs might be so soaked in the conventional wisdom of a discipline from a very early point that they won’t bring those needed misreadings to the table that have always fueled progress in the past. That without the silence in between, the conversation will become less varied and meaningful.

Which turns, oddly, into an ode on blogs. For today I sit on my porch, unwired, typing on an AlphaSmart Neo and reading some documents I downloaded onto my Sony Reader. And while I’m sure I haven’t pulled together the most cogent argument (or linked as much as I might), it feels damn good.

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So I wonder if it’s possible to move back after all, to think in wider and longer swaths again, but to still keep the connectivity. And I can’t help but think that the lowly blog, with it’s talent for doing conversation as a series of longer cross referenced articles is the perfect channel we currently have for such discourse.

Regardless, I think it’s worth it to continue talking about what a healthy community of discourse looks like, rather than to assume that future professional communities must borrow thier idiom from current teen or gadget-geek culture.

That is, perhaps we should have the discussion that Andrew Keen and Michael Gorman would start if they were not so interested in being inflammatory. One that notes that Marc Andreesen is trying to get offline more, and that Lessig declared email bankruptcy over three years ago.

There’s a real hunger right now for a work that pulls these New Primitive impulses developing among the older techies and reconciles it with the beauty of the data finds data world Jon Udell recently discussed on his blog.

In short, how do we structure our lives so that we get both the benefits of mass conversation and the restorative power of the silences in between?

Update: I just discovered that Martha Burtis asks perhaps the first important question, one which I skipped over here: How are we blogging now? What are our techniques, and what have we found works and doesn’t work? Much better starting point than my Smiley-induced ramble.

From there it becomes a question of a variety of best practices…but the first step is really to make visible our experience, like those old books on writing that would just be collections of reflections by writers on schedule, technique, process, etc. “I usually start typing at four in the morning on my Remington from notes made the previous afternoon,” said Writer X., etc….

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3 thoughts on “Offline thinking

  1. You’ve really sparked my imagination here — I’ve got a longer response brewing in my head that I’ll blog soon.

    But in the meantime, I want to just say that this whole idea of “making visible our experience” just fascinates me.

    In my mind, it’s about developing some kind of pattern language — or a common language that makes visible our own patterns of experience.

    When we don’t share those patterns of experience, we waste time, we talk at odds to each other, we lose opportunities.

    Eh. I’m rambling a bit. Again, I’m cooking a longer response, but in the meantime, thanks for the link and thanks, even more, for the thinking.

  2. Pat! I didn’t know you read me.

    Which reminds me I still haven’t got the date of that Stanford eportfolio conference — will do tomorrow.

    Martha —

    Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to your post. Maybe it’s because I’ve read Jon’s columns for far too long, but making visible our experience is one of those really key ideas for me. It’s foundational to learning, culture, the whole bit.

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