I'd like to meander a bit through quietness. I value quietness, stillness, reflection, contemplation. A moment to pause.
That's not easy in a noisy world. It's not easy in a world of constant content generation. Words pushed out, extruded from the complex cookie cutter of what came before. Do words mean anything anymore?
When I tell people I used to be a professor, especially in my recent activities that have been more about product management, software development, user research and the like, I think there are two big blind spots people have. Professor reads as either 1. researcher or a scientist who spends the whole day “researching” (whatever idea that conjures up exactly) or 2. teacher, as in the fleeting glimpses of professors that most students see in college when professors are doing the lecture or seminar thing, maybe grading, maybe a mentor or possibly just a pain to be overcome. But the fact is that most of the job of being a professor — vs. the ideal or fantasy — is not that at all. It's invisible labor, and it's a lot more like the kind of labor that professionals do outside of academia than most may think.
Put simply, the university is one of the most oppressively hierarchical types of organizations around; management skills are the bread and butter of surviving in that world.
I lived for many years in a land of hurricanes. You got used to them. Now I live in a place where impending rains risk mudslides and trees coming down on the house we're living in. I'm not used to that.
Trying to keep the panic at bay. News headlines serving both as responsible warning and as sensationalist click-bait don't help matters. Media diet always feels good, but it is too late to tune out the constant drumbeat of doom.
Feels like I should bunker everyone elsewhere for a few days. I have rarely felt such insecurity in a home.
It has me thinking about the importance of security for everyday things. Generosity flows from security. Study and learning and growth require security. Play and experimentation require security. Despite the silicon valley ethos of unease, innovation requires security and safety and trust.
And then I think about the media and the doom-scrolling and the constant sell-able headlines. Every murder reported, stories of true crime, Nextdoor's constant adrenaline rush of thefts and neighborly warnings to watch out, an ever-flowing sludge of fear and suspicion.
We manufacture our own insecurity in times of security. And I don't know whether now, with real threats, it is kicked in overdrive or not nearly active enough.
I've been an early adopter of many online technologies over the past 20+ years. So I was on twitter early (and facebook and all the others). I usually had been the first faculty member at my institution to try a particular tool, whether consumer or for teaching, which then, a few years later, people would start to pay attention to. I don't claim any great prescience; I just find new tools interesting for thinking with. Due to that pattern of early adopting, I also tend to be an early abandoner. So I left twitter (and facebook and so many others) a long time ago. As a disciple nowadays of the school of thought that sees social media as a fairly pernicious influence on human sanity, I mostly stay off the social media. But I've enjoyed quiet corners of mastodon at various times, and quiet corners of the internet in general. I like the serendipity of it. You might get great content at one time of day or maybe not. It's a bit like window shopping or browsing the library stacks.
So now the pace on mastodon seems to have picked up and this past week has seen a marked uptick in academic twitterati and influencer types jumping ship to mastodon. With that has come the inevitable snap judgements of the platform, some of it good and generous, and then other bits of newcomers walking in and immediately wanting to rearrange the furniture.
I don't particularly care about any of that, though it does amuse me to see so many (loudly online) academics acting like these twitter alternatives are some great discovery. Now, if they all moved back to gopher or gemini, maybe that would be a bit more of an obscure-ish discovery relative to the academic familiar. I suspect many are thinking and wondering why in the world academics weren't mostly on mastodon the whole time. After all, you can create a server for your own interest, federate with who you chose to hear from (and keep out people from servers you don't want to hear from), and generally create a bunch of mini disciplinary worlds. Seems like a good way to do the basic thing that twitter did for many academics: give you a tool where you can keep up with what was going on in the field.
Interesting to see how this will go and whether it will stick. I suspect for academics that mastodon will prove quite a good fit, now that many have been prompted to move over en masse, which was, after all, what was holding any individual back. Academics are, after all, herd creatures. Anyone who has sat in a faculty meeting or in tenure review or on an academic committee of any sort can tell you that. The only thing that matters is what other people think.
Which is, I suppose, why I started writing this. All that academic flocking reminded me why I left.
I spend a lot of my time in software development cycles nowadays. So every day is an exercise in clearing blockers. This thing won't work until that thing is done and so forth. I've been thinking a lot about how most technical blockers or even people blockers, however annoying, are completely manageable. They can be defined and triaged through consistent application of a variety of unblocking routines. The blockers that are harder are always those that are tied less to the product and more to the person. For myself, and for better or worse, that blocker prances around in popular imagining as “perfectionism”; I'm not quite sure what it is to me anymore. I've spend a lot of effort chipping away at it. It is an echo of its former volume and a mere whisper in many spheres. But when it comes to most of my solo developer efforts, it still roars.
(made with Dall-e: “a professor silverback gorilla sitting at a cafe table drinking coffee, in the style of Vincent van Gogh's Le café de nuit”)
As I sit here cafe-ing the day away (i.e. working), surrounded by technoristas putting their startup specs into Notion documents, Slack-ing with comrades in between messaging warm leads on LinkedIn, I can't help but wonder at the unnaturalness of it all. My back is going to hate me later for sitting in front of the screen and my eyes will grow ever weaker. There was a time when I used to go to a cafe to enjoy a book and some writing.
Ever have those days where you're oddly out of sync and there's no good reason why? I think maybe it's a caffeine thing (too much? too little?) or maybe it's just a need more sleep thing. Or maybe it's a weather turning cold thing. Or staring at a screen too much.
The world just seems a bit less settled than it should be. Anxiety creeps in at the edges for no good reason. I've got stuff to do (so much stuff...) but I'd really rather watch tv. And I rarely would rather watch TV.
Maybe I'm hungry. But it's late in the day and they're out of all the food. Why does a cafe run out of food like that when they are open plenty more hours? Maybe it's a headache. (Is it a headache?) Maybe it's too much sugar. (i can certainly do with less of that.) Maybe I do need to eat something.
It's one of those days where I feel like I'm in a cocoon of tasks, all cutting and strangling but also completely irrelevant.
I've always found that cycling through activities, often a wide variety of different kinds of things, to be me at my most productive. As a professor it was the rotation of writing, research, teaching, meetings— each has a time of day when it works best and the act of switching between them, when it goes right, provides a catalyst for new thought and energy. Now it's a different set of things — project management, writing, coding, data work — but the principle is the same. Taking breaks for a small bit of music or exercise is peak efficiency. It is me at my most me and an hour spent on an activity that way outproduces a day spent grinding away on the same task in other circumstances.
I come from generations of collectors. Not hoarders. Just collectors of certain things that have been carefully curated over the years. Books are the most common. Stationary and office supplies, that's another one. I share that love of pens and pencils and have let it spill further than my ancestors, into typewriters and other retrotech. My grandfather had National Geographics from the time he was 14, and they accumulated through all the years of his life until my grandmother, many years after his death, when she had to leave her house, the magazines descended again from the warm dry fossilization of the attic to the inglorious boxes my aunt stashed in the corner of the garage, saving them for me apparently, though those who don't collect books tend not to realize how they can easily be destroyed. Not a few were lost. I shipped them 1000 miles once I had a house to put them in, and they weighed down my shelves stacked double deep for an ungodliy amount of linear feet, years 1928 to whenever.