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.
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.
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- Urban data: From fetish object to social object | 14th March 2014 at LSE Cities 27 February 2014
- Two recent interviews 24 February 2014
- TFTD 23 February 2014
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- Douglas Meehan on What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)