A few months ago, I posted about what felt to me like my lack of "original thought" in my blogging. Sébastien Paquet posted a lovely response
that cheered me immensely:
This is a core problem of being an "eyes-wide-open librarian". You have such a wide view of things that you inevitable become aware of others' ideas that are similar to yours.
Most people focus more narrowly on what they do; as a result they aren't aware that they are reinventing the wheel. Fortunately for them, it often turns out that the people who review their work aren't either.
Truth be told, there aren't that many good, original ideas around, but many people would rather believe it were so.
Good ideas need amplification, explanation, and new angles from other people. How I wish that one could get credit for such creative work.
I thought of this again last night as I was mulling over an e-mail exchange I'd had with Kevin Werbach. I'd sent him mail after posting my extended rant, and he'd sent back a very nice reply in which he asked me to tell him what I might bring to the table.
Now, this is where all the interesting defensive mechanisms in my brain start to kick in. If I put everything into that response, talk about my passions and interests and why I think what I have to say matters, there's far more risk. Because then if the answer is "thanks, but no thanks," it's a rejection of true self. Much easier, then, to toss off a quick laundry list of experience and interest, and try to feel nonchalant about it. That way if it doesn't fly, I can always say "well, it's not like I really tried." I know this is one of my most problematic personality traits (and, alas, it's one I see echoed in my oldest son, who is more like me than I ever imagined a person could be). You miss out on a lot if you're not willing to take those kinds of risks--risks that you might not be the best at something, might not get picked, might not get praised.
So last night, I started thinking more about why, exactly, I think I have something to offer to the public discourse on new technologies. I mentally dredged through my postings from the past six months, looking for themes, for core ideas, for things that resonated. What finally made it all click was the title of Meg Hourihan's upcoming talk at ETCON: "From the Margins of the Writeable Web."
The margins. The edges. The boundaries. The outlines. After reading about last year's Supernova, where outlines
seemed to be quite a theme, I wrote a bit about outlines and boundaries
, but didn't go nearly as far with that in writing as I'd wanted to. Later, after the Columbia tragedy, I wrote a bit more on the topic:
I thought a lot more about outlines, edges, boundaries, and how the most interesting things seem to happen at the edges. The edge to edge linking of blogs...the interdisciplinary ideas that emerge at the boundaries of traditional thought...and the excitement of crossing boundaries--whether they be physical, intellectual, or emotional. (3 February 2003)
That's it. Right there. The core of what I've been saying to my colleagues, to my friends, to myself. The most interesting things seem to happen at the edges. That's where the connections happen. That's where the borders and boundaries are still permeable, where change happens, where innovation thrives.
The problem is, when you're in the center, it's hard to see
the edges. Joi blogged about this a bit in February, after he and I chatted online for a bit about power and control and the difficulty of effecting change from within the power structure:
Inspired by Clay's claims about the power law distribution of blogs, I've been thinking and writing (with many others) about emergent democracy in the hopes that blogs will not create an elite ruling class, but will allow direct democracy to emerge from the chaos. The irony of my technorati and daypop rankings increasing because of this does not escape me. It feels good to get attention, and this feeling is the lust that drives people to stare at power law curve. Liz and I were chatting in IM about this today and she quoted: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them." So, who is the Frodo Baggins of the Internet? Are bloggers hobbits? Who can resist the power law distribution and try to create a more democratic process.
It is not just the Net that suffers from this. In my attempts to change Japan, Oki Matsumoto and I have been plotting the overthrow of the ruling elite. The problem is, to change anything in Japan, you have to be powerful and elite. Once you are powerful and elite, it is almost impossible by definition to overthrow yourself. (24 February 2003)
So you have a conundrum. The people on the edges are "marginal." And because they're marginal, their voices are not central and are harder to hear. And so many of the structures--organizational and technical--that are emerging now tend to reinforce those strata rather than leveling them.
I think about the conferences we've been discussing...it makes all kinds of sense to have the people who are at the center of this technical tsunami speaking--people who have founded companies, shaped government policy, written influential tomes. Hey, I wouldn't be so excited about attending them if I didn't think that the things being said had value. I'd like nothing more than to be in the audience listening to Meg later this month. But at the same time, I wonder if it doesn't make sense to have some voices from the edge, as well.
One of the things academics tend to be good at is living on the edges. We're marginal, almost by definition. We like to watch. I suppose the up side of being in an ivory tower is the view. Ernest Boyer, whose book Scholarship Reconsidered has been much-discussed here at RIT, outlines four different types of scholarship. The most traditional form he identifies is "scholarship of discovery." But the form that resonates most with me is his "scholarship of integration":
By connecting knowledge and discovery into larger patterns and contexts, creating new perspectives, the scholarship of integration may transcend disciplinary boundaries [emphasis added] to give meaning to isolated facts. Integration includes, for example, cross-disciplinary activities and the connection of technology with teaching or research.
Which brings me to what I finally realized I'm so very good at--which Seb apparently saw before I did. I'm one of Gladwell's "mavens." But I don't just collect information. I evaluate it, I synthesize it, I integrate it.
If you've ever attended Pop!Tech, you've probably heard Bob Metcalfe's infamous wrap-up sessions. He does a one-hour "Summing Up" in which he encapsulates the key points of the conference in a nutshell. It's entertaining and interesting and a wonderful way to end things. That's what I'm good at, too. I'm the consummate summarizer. I instinctively know what the important (and the weak) parts of what I'm hearing are. I can view things from the margins, and write the annotations.
And at the end of the day, even if that's not, as Seb says, a creative endeavour for which one gets "credit"...well, that's okay. It's enough to know that I can do it--and to know that people like Seb...and Joi...and Shelley...and Jill (and a host of other people whose ideas I value and respect) appreciate it. The rest...well, as my husband pointed out, "if you're so happy flitting around the edges, why even try to burn yourself by flying into the flame in the center?"