Apologies and explanations [longish, too emo for most]

Many thanks to those of you who have written to note, comment on or bemoan the lack of posting hereabouts lately. I really do appreciate your support. It’s true, as more than a few of you have guessed, that Helsinki winter has sapped me of most of the energy I’d need to maintain a regular posting schedule, but there are deeper issues keeping me from having much to say as well, and maybe you ought to have an account of some of that.

I’ve basically given up trying to get any work done on the book for the time being. It’s been a struggle enough to find the time and space to think and write these last two years, and it’s by now abundantly clear to me that it was a particularly titanic and hubristic bit of foolery to even think of finishing this project while I remained at Nokia. The end of my contract looms on the horizon, though, just a few months out, and trust me when I say I’m very much looking forward to devoting myself fully to something that is fully my own.

If you’ve been waiting patiently for this book to appear — and your support and forbearance throughout this period have redefined “patience” for me — fear not, there is a completion path and plan that stretches across the second half of 2010. I also, frankly, feel (and believe you’ll eventually agree) that the book will be better for not having appeared in 2008; these two years have seen so many real-life case studies and stories to tell crop up in the general field of urban informatics that the book can only be richer for delivering an account of them.

Such energy as I do have, I’m currently devoting to Do projects, where there is a gratifyingly proportionate relationship between the effort I invest and the reward realized. Our Tokyo Blues continues to do well, but if you’re not familiar with it I’d love it if you’d have a look and consider ordering a copy or two.

On the subject of books, it’s also mildly interesting to me that, while sales of Everyware have apparently found entirely new regions of toilet to circle, paradoxically enough the book seems only to be growing in influence and even finding the broader readership I’d always wanted for it. What makes me ambivalent about this otherwise happy circumstance is that, after all, I wrote the thing in 2005 — and five years is a lifetime when you’re talking about technology. I can’t imagine that anyone picking up this book for the first time in 2010 is going to find it anything but quaint, but as usual, I couldn’t possibly be more delighted that people continue to find it of use.

The situation with regard to speaking is, I’m afraid, less felicitous. I’m coming off a run of mediocre-to-outright-bad talks, capped by a jetlagged muddle before a room of very, very bright people at last month’s Microsoft Social Computing Summit in New York. There have been exceptions — the hour or so that I spent in conversation with Usman Haque at Hackney’s SPACE at the tail-end of November was just electric, profoundly gratifying — but for the most part I don’t feel like audiences are getting very much value out of what I’m trying to bring to the table.

One of the harder things about public speaking for me has always been this notion I have that, for any given audience, you’re always carrying around some insight that would blow their minds — but you don’t know which of the ten thousand notions floating around your skull it actually is. And your task, if you want to leave the people who have entrusted you with their time and attention with something of worth, is to somehow divine that one thing, and sort it from the banalities, shallow takes and things they’ve heard before, better stated by someone else.

Simply put, I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job of this my last three, four, five times out, and I think the smartest thing I can do by way of response is cut way back on my travel and speaking commitments and see if that improves my sense of what people might find valuable.

I’m trying to carve out more space, in general, for long-form reading, contemplation and synthesis, and this means stepping away from the fast-twitch clock speed of contemporary media. This goes specifically to my use of Twitter and Dopplr and Foursquare and whatnot: it’s not such a good idea to use these to get in touch with me, as I’m not paying attention, and especially don’t be hurt if you’ve tried to connect with me on one service or another and haven’t heard anything back.

2.
And this points toward the primary thing that’s been bothering me, the thing which has been keeping me from wanting to be particularly visible at the moment (or for any future easily foreseeable from here). My feelings about it are complicated, will be a little difficult to articulate correctly, and will quite probably rub some of you the wrong way even if I do get the expression of it righter than not.

This is the crux of it: I’ve come to feel that, by virtue of my public participation, a whole lot of people I don’t know expect and (what’s more and worse) feel like they have the right to demand a certain level of performance from me. They – and for some people reading this, I really mean “you” – insist on a certain frequency of posting, a certain quality of cleverness or perspicacity, a certain threshold of seriousness. I believe this because I hear about it in spades if I fail on any count to deliver on your expectations.

I get asked to advise people on their academic and career choices, point them at resources, introduce them to (what they seem to believe are) my influential friends, write forewords (for free), speak at events (for free), give what amounts to free consulting. In most of these cases the person asking seems to think I have huge draughts of time and energy available to me, coupled with magickal access to some source of insight they don’t. And for the last several years — because all of this would be very gratifying for anyone, and I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to be in any such position — I responded to each and every such request with a “yes,” answered each and every mail, took time to ensure that each and every query was engaged politely, promptly, and as fully as possible.

What I want to say to you now is that whether or not anyone else on Earth is capable of measuring up to these expectations, I am not.

I’m exhausted. Drained and spent. Distracted from the things I want to achieve in the precious little time any of us have in this life. (I can’t even begin to imagine what anybody who’s genuinely a public person in any real sense of those words experiences.) And yes, I acknowledge that this is in large measure my own fault. I suppose it’s what anybody asks for when they post things in the open, for all & sundry to read and link and respond to…but I have to tell you it’s the furthest thing from anything I have in mind when I hit “publish.”

See, in my heart of hearts, when I write something here, I’m intending it for a very small group of friends and colleagues — like maybe ten people. This is both because these people constitute my imagined peer community, and because it’s virtually impossible for me to conceive of anyone else caring in the slightest what I have to say. The main reason I bother is because, for whatever reason, I believe that inherent in the act of consuming other people’s intellectual or artistic output is the responsibility to replenish the well by producing your own…but you don’t ever actually expect anybody to notice that you’re doing so, or trying to. So it’s always a little surprising for me when someone who is not part of that tiny crowd goes and links something I’ve posted here before a broader audience, with the implication that it’s worth that audience’s time in considering and engaging.

OK, fair enough. It’s a public Internet: all adults understand this basic fact. If you’re not prepared to have your words travel widely, why bother blogging at all? All stipulated. Even more so, in this case, because I’m venting about the perceived limitations of a particular community of practice, and what should I expect but that the people who feel themselves taken to task might want to respond?

What I dislike is the very premise that what I posted even constitutes a “challenge” that’s worth addressing in any such way. The reason people keep blogs — let me be more straightforward: the reason I keep a blog — is to express opinions. Precisely to not, always, have to be consistent or sensible or bound by a duty to the truth. To not, always, have to be responsible. To not, always, answer to the same standards I’d expect of (say) a writer for the New York Times or the Guardian. To be full of shit, if I feel like it. And, what’s more (and this goes to the bozo who whined about my ostensible tone of “world-weary superiority”), to be full of shit in whatever style I feel like adopting.

As it happens, I do stand by what I wrote in the linked post. But in reading the responses to it on the IxDA site, it’s obvious that most of the people there found my take on matters transparently and profoundly wrong — plainly contradicted by the facts on the ground, which some of them proceed to enumerate. And here’s the mystery to me: if what I wrote is so obviously fatuous, why even bother addressing it at all? The unspoken premise is, I suppose, flattering, but it’s also dangerous and wrong: that my opinion somehow has more weight than Random Internet Person’s, and therefore demands a response.

Let me be the very first person to assure you that it has not and does not. I simply don’t believe in “thought leaders,” gurus, or “experts”; I think you should be very suspicious of anyone who allows themselves to be referred to as such, and triply so of anyone who refers to themselves as such. This is not, at all, to say that I don’t believe in, acknowledge and sincerely admire expertise…but in the end, opinion, no matter how well-informed, is just that and should never, ever be taken for anything more.

For me personally, this resistance to the notion of “thought leadership” is one of the many healthy values I picked up from punk rock, where the kid on the stage was just another kid in the crowd ten minutes ago, and will be again ten minutes from now. Stiff Little Fingers said it all better and more tunefully thirty (!) years ago, but the bottom line is that you’re making a serious blunder if you’re looking to me or anyone else for superior insight: the only insight worth having is the one you’ve developed yourself. Or that, anyway, is my opinion.

Now I’m no worse at basic operations of logic than anyone else: if my voluntarily choosing to do something is observably leading to unpleasant results, for me and everyone else…then perhaps the best way to prevent that outcome is not to engage in that particular pursuit anymore, y’know? I’m going to step away from the keyboard for awhile, which may or may not be quite a long while, and try to find ways of making better and deeper contributions — contributions, in any case, that do not involve inane nanocelebrity and the spurious, misleading and entirely unwanted mantle of “thought leadership.”

As Stiff Little Fingers’ lead singer Jake Burns used to say at the close of every gig (and it’s a habit of his which, I now realize, I’ve been subconsciously aping for years): thank you very much for your time, and your voices, and your applause. I am now and will always be grateful that you gave my words and ideas your consideration. Now go and be your own hero.

16 responses to “Apologies and explanations [longish, too emo for most]”

  1. donna says :

    I empathize and agree with every single thing you’ve stated here. That said, I’ll just pass on a small anecdote: while explaining to my 6 year old son last night (during the Super Bowl) what “animation” means, I used my copy of Everyware to draw the little grade school flip book worm/line crossing the bottom of the pages. He loved it, and now I have a material reminder of a moment with my son. Take care of yourself.

  2. Surya says :

    Congrats Adam, for finding the strength to say NO and not to be too much bothered by it.

  3. D. Reetz says :

    Hope you don’t mind the occasional (no-response-expected, not-selling-nothing you-came-to-mind-cause-I’ve-been reading-your-stuff-for-almost-a decade-though-we’ve-never-met-in-person) link rushing your inbox every so often.

    • AG says :

      Never a problem, Dan. (I’d go so far as to imagine, on the Dunning-Kruger principle, that anyone who thinks I’m probably talking about them in the above comments is incorrect, and vice-versa.)

  4. Sean P Murphy says :

    Well, Adam, I’m sorry to hear of the BS that you’ve had to deal with as of late, but at least you had the wherewithal to pull away now while your sense of humor and sanity are still intact.
    Unfortunately, you seem to have fallen victim to the curse of “assumed familiarity”, you know, like when a friend of a friend takes it for granted that you will hit it off gangbusters just because you have a mutual acquaintance. This syndrome is unfortunately amplified for you because you’re *famous* and some people just don’t have any concept of boundaries whatsoever.
    So, I’m saddened by the lack of posts from you, but I’d rather you recharge, refocus, and keep your bloody sanity. We all need to pull back and remove ourselves from the stream sometimes. Stay well and remember, this too shall pass.

  5. François Nonnenmacher says :

    Bonjour Adam. Still coming to Wellington next week I hope? Jet-lagged or not, I’m really looking forward to walking around the city with you. (And some bars and restaurants may be, after all they’re part of city aren’t they?) ;-)

    Amicalement,
    François

  6. Dan Saffer says :

    A challenge is not (in my mind) a negative thing. Opinions should be challenging to at least some people; otherwise, they’re just facts. I posted a link to your article because I mostly agreed with it, not to draw criticism towards you. Sorry if I’m not considered your peer enough to do so.

    • AG says :

      I get that, Dan, but I do wish then that you’d framed it that way for that audience. They respect you, and would surely have taken my words as less of an assault had they first had any inkling what your take was.

      But the way you presented the piece was (to me, anyway) kind of coy. Whether you intended to do so or not, that framing, alongside the decontextualized quotes you offered, could do little but provoke the most predictable circling of wagons. And that’s what we got. And yeah, I found dealing with that exhausting, starting with the hassle of the retarded way I had to register for the IxDA site just to respond to the thread.

      And please don’t take that “peer” the wrong way, either. I certainly don’t mean it in the sense of some invidious intellectual standard, but rather: these are the people I’m close with, with whom I share the kind of colloquy that doesn’t require endless explanations along the lines of this one. The people I can trust to get me and to get where I’m coming from.

      However much we may appreciate one another’s work, we’ve never been that kind of close, right? I certainly wouldn’t expect you to name me as one of your peers, nor would I be hurt if you failed to do so.

      One of the very first lessons I learned when I started writing on the Internet was that words in themselves make pisspoor carriers of meaning, and that soooo much gets lost if you don’t know the person writing pretty well, or otherwise lack the contextualizing cues that might help situate a comment or expression. (This present conversation strikes me as an instance of same.) What bummed me out about the IxDA thread was simply that you and Chris Fahey are the only people posting on it I’ve ever met or broken bread with, and very likely the only ones commenting ever to have read enough of my writing to have any sense at all of what I was on about. To anyone else, it was likely just noise, could only be interpreted as noise, and was appropriately enough dealt with as same.

  7. Todd says :

    I finally got around to reading Everyware recently(got a copy from the library), and I didn’t find it quaint at all.

    I did find it kind of depressing, though. I’m not sure the world needs yet another layer of abstraction.

  8. Ms. Jen says :

    Hi Adam, in the few times I have seen you speak & the one time I met you, you struck me as the creative person who needs quite a bit of solitude to build your energy to face the world. Carve the time you need out without apologies.

    Amusingly, one of the emails in my inbox today was the SLF newsletter informing me of upcoming gigs.

    ;o)

  9. Jason Koning says :

    Hey Adam,
    For someone who is not in any way an academic, and has only just found out about you and your work (via Webstock – NZ) all I can say is I’m very pleased I have found you, irrespective of whether or not I can engage in an intellectual manner.
    I found your presentation interesting and most of all inspiring, and very much look forward to reading your book.
    All the best for the future.
    Kindest regards
    Jas

  10. leftsider says :

    All well said, but a few points catch my interest.

    First, the rejection of the moniker “thought leader” is a very safe thing. Those who grasp for this title surely cannot be trusted, but those who earn it (willingly or unconsciously) yet eschew it are merely avoiding the power (and responsibility) it entails. There are no award given for shirking duties, but it is not wrong nor is it reprehensible.

    Second, POSIWD. There is an internal dissonance when I hear that you’ve only ever expected a peer group-read blog–not an audience–in the face of the teaching, authoring, speaking and such. Especially in the light of Everyware itself. Perhaps this explains your withdrawing from the existing system and possible creation of a new, more appropriate vehicle. If so, I’m eager to see the new method you develop.

    Finally, I love this concept you illustrate of taking and giving within a community, without congratulation or exhortation. I respect your idea of peer-sharing while gently mentioning that many once-valid, now-defunct vocations share the trait of peer-acceptance over external realities. You seem to have alluded to this in your tome, so I guess I digress.

    Best wishes and still hoping to clink a bottle of Ting at some point.

  11. Erin says :

    It’s slushstorming in Manhattan this evening, dark earlier than usual, and I was thinking of you and Nurri. Can’t wait till you’re back and can share some warm evenings and cold drinks outdoors.

  12. Roger Smart says :

    This one is for Adam.

    To birth a book.
    A book needs solitude
    It needs walks in the woods

    A book needs aimless cogitation
    That nonetheless leads you somewhere
    A book needs starry nights and cool air
    It needs time to dream, time to read
    Lots of time to stare into the distance
    Just letting the words roll around in there

    A book needs the space to be front and
    center in your mind.
    To be all that you think about for hours
    and days at a time
    Time that the phone doesn’t ring, the email
    doesn’t ping.
    Time with no project due, no report to be written

    A book needs solitude
    Solitude of the mental kind
    And walks in the woods
    Even if the woods are only in your mind

    3/31/2010, 12:41 AM

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