Friday, October 12, 2007


I'm in Montreal this week participating in the Playful Technocultures unconference and the annual meeting of 4S. I've met a lot of interesting people, learned about what's been going on in STS since I last dropped in, and had a number of thought-provoking conversations. For me, a lot of the discussion has centered on (artificial?) distinctions between play and work, on what makes something "serious" or not. Today, for example, I had lunch with three RPI guys, Hector, Casey and Sean. We were talking about the role of blogging in academic careers, how it is not yet valued for promotion or tenure, even though it is clearly a form of public engagement. Many of us, in fact, have already found our online reputations and readership to be at least as beneficial as our published work in providing access to scholarly opportunities, funding, and other good stuff. The academic perception of professional blogging is bound to change as a generation of academic bloggers becomes tenured, and committees begin to recognize that blogging may be fun, but it can also be work, that blogs can be about more than where you ate lunch.

Our discussion turned from there to the fact that bloggers tend to value substantive posts much more than short ones that link to other things of interest. Sean noted, however, that given the sheer volume of stuff that comes through the feed reader every day, these link posts serve a useful "buzz" function... you tend to check out the pointers that recur in the blogs that you follow regularly. In a sense, both the glut of information and the new value of "unoriginal" content (like link posts) are concomitants of the shift to what Roy Rosenzweig called the culture of abundance. There is way too much out there now to monitor by yourself; you really need other people to add their "me too" when someone thinks something is cool. Think of these link posts as providing a gradient to the search space, so you or your bots have a better chance of finding spikes of interest.

Don't get me wrong: I think originality can be a good thing, but I don't think that it's the only good thing. The internet gives us instant access to the contents of the hive mind. It's easy to find out that someone else has already had your brainwave, or done the hack that you were planning to try. Don't let that stop you. You have to play with other people's ideas, words, tropes, code, artifacts, instruments, and story lines to achieve any kind of mastery of anything. Besides, historians are fond of pointing out that every new new thing actually has a long past [insert unoriginal allusion to Santayana here]. Sure the collective is doomed to repeat things, but how else could it memorize them?

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