living on the edge(s)

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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 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?"

2 TrackBacks

edge-think from carvingCode on April 8, 2003 3:52 PM

Liz, at has a wonderful entry titled "living on the edge(s)". It's about many things, but the quote below struck me the most: "That%u2019s it. Right there. The core of what I%u20... Read More

Edge data from Bill Kearney on April 9, 2003 1:17 PM

Elizabeth Lane offers some interesting comments about the edges of emerging social network ideas. This is been one of my... Read More



I've been visiting your blog for awhile and really enjoying your thoughts. Two things strike chords for me in this post. First, your thoughts on defense mechanisms and risk I totally identify with. It's taken me years to find ways to stand up and say this is what I'm interested in, this is what I know, this is where my thoughts are going. I recently sent a 'why I should work on this grant' letter to a colleague and instead of doing the usual dry listing of x years experience here and x degrees, etc. I started listing exactly what excited me about the project, where I thought I had work and personal and research experience that would apply, what ideas I already had that might apply. I included things that people at work don't even necessarily know that I know, but that I've been researching and paying attention to for years.

I am much farther on the edges of things than you are--neither academic nor entrepreneur--and one of the things I greatly appreciate about blogging as it exists right now is the chance to participate in at least 'fringely' ways in conversations I'd never have even the slightest bit of access to otherwise.

In another recent post you mentioned reading Emergence and having someone ask you whether it was for work or pleasure. I haven't (unfortunately) reached the point where my work is my pleasure, some of what I do is dead boring and stressful, but I have managed in the last two or three years to carve out space for looking at the thing I'm most interested in--how people interact with technology--and I do read books like Emergence and The Social Life of Information for pleasure. Now all I have to do is find the time to do the things I want to do with all the knowledge I've gained from this stuff! :-)

Anyway, some rather rambly thoughts. Thanks for posting yours!

I have to agree with DebC, I have so many apprehensions about things. Even trying to befriend you, Liz, and even making friends with professors is a risk that I'm trying to take and that scares me every day because it seems deviant.

When I asked you to help me I was afraid that you'd reject me but I can't agree more that you can't succeed if you never try. And if you don't have the time, then you don't and that's fine. But I'd be better of trying than doing nothing at all.

You have a lot of good points and I really have enjoyed reading your blog discussions. Cheers.

What you are talking about here -- working at the margins -- is what contemporary experimental poetry takes as its necessary condition. Talking at the boundaries... But what happens when you talk the talk from the ivory tower, when you have that view? Once you have perspective, once you can synthesize with authority, you're not marginal anymore, right? How do you deal with that? It's like Joi Ito's bit about needing power to depose power...

If I were to reach a position of authority I wish I were able to do my best to overtly doubt the foundation of that authority and look for and point to dissonant voices - so that ideas may continue to evolve, and that I may act as a catalyst rather than as a bottleneck.

Mom (Linda)--that's the real question, isn't it. Let me turn it do poets deal with it? When a "marginal" poet becomes widely read and published, does it change the impact of their voice?

And if a marginal voice writes in the forest of blogs, and nobody reads it, did it make a noise?

Actually, that's what I find so fascinating...and encouraging...about blogs. Marginal voices become connected to each other. There is less of a center than the "power law" distributions would suggest. It's the second-order networks (look at Ross Mayfield's Network Ecosystem diagrams for more of what I'm talking about).

The May 2003 issue of Wired arrived this morning. There is an article about the MIT Media Lab entitled, "The Lab That Fell To Earth". It says, "... the storied MIT Media Lab is now teetering on the brink of breakup - or, even worse, irrelevence".

What is interesting, and relevant to your post, is a quote from Negroponte:

"We went from the lunatic fringe to the establishment, and may have done so too fast."

Some creative folks on the fringe don't take it too well when they go mainstream... look what happened to Kurt Cobain for example...

Here's the Wired story:

The fringe is where most of the interesting, innovative things happen. People with any kind of creative, inquiring streak in them tend to gravitate towards the fringe to keep themselves awake and feeling alive.

The technology field, almost by definition, would have to foster its share of fringe people. Innovation is the name of the game.

My Marxist side wants to interrupt this train of thought to point out that "fringe" in technology is tolerated because there's money to be made in innovation. Computer hardware and software is upgraded with abandon not because it's necessarily for the Betterment of Mankind but because Computer Industrial Complex companies need to extract ever increasing amounts of money from people's wallets somehow.

The flip side of this is that in most business models "fringe" is not tolerated. Fringe implies Different which implies The Unknown. The Unknown is Scary because it's not How We've Always Made Money.

It was always my hope that Academia would be exempt from this. In some areas that was true, but in others (both as student and as teacher) I dealt with many who needed to be Retired (although not necessarily in the Blade Runner sense) to make way for new people with new ideas.

As with all things, there's a personal choice to be made. Staying inside the lines often keeps the steady paycheck and health benefits coming in. Staying too far inside the lines means closing off creativity, not questioning authority and going to sleep. For good.

Fringe is often seen as a threat by those who are already asleep and don't want to have anything happen around them that might wake them up. (This is one reason why I think there are so few good, original ideas)

Your friend & blog commenter Jill quoted on 04/10/03 in her blog "I think to call yourself a writer you must dare to put ALL of yourself into your writing." IMHO, this is the sentiment of the Artist who will be seen as Fringe because of his/her non-conformity and willingness to expose all.

I'm actually far more interested in learning what Alex really meant by "why does everything have an outline?" My suspicion is that there's more zen going on there than we've thought about.

Liz, you blogged:-
"The most interesting things seem to happen at the edges."

Well, of course they do! I can even give you a mathematical proof (1/2 page) if you REALLY want it :) I'd have to mail you a .pdf or a file of that ilk though, because I haven't worked out how to typeset algebra in this little comment-box :(

Stu Savory,
who loved Math in school :)




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on April 8, 2003 8:16 AM.

women and social software was the previous entry in this blog.

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