The art of public thinking

I feel like I’m losing some of my ability to think.

Why? Because I’m not blogging any more.

This blog has been dead for quite a while, mostly for logistical reasons. One is sheer interia: I’ve gotten so far out of the habit that getting back in is hard. The other is the demands of everyday life: I have two little boys, 5 and 3, and hanging out with them consumes the free hours that I used to devote to blogging. (It’s actually quite hilarious how directly the arrival of my kids effected the slow heat death of my blog. Gabriel was born December 2005, after which you can see things begin to sag; then when Zev arrives in December 2007 things go into an even more rapid collapse, until the blog becomes a vacant lot.) I kept on trying to get back in the saddle, and each time the horse threw me. Also: I’m kinda lazy. When I get a few hours free at night after the kids are in bed, and it’s a choice between blogging or doing a slow march through the 2004 Penny Arcade archives, I’m going with door #2.

This year, I’ve had another big load on my time: I’m writing my first book! Thus far it’s called Outsmart: The Future of Thought in the Age of Machines — a title possessed of such purple, sci-fi bombast that even though I wrote it myself, I still crack up every time I say it out loud. As you might imagine, coming from me, the book is a generally optimistic assessment of how digital tools are generating new ways for us to learn things, muse over them, and act on them. But the point is that it’s another time hog: Researching and writing a book has required such nose-to-the-grindstone work — to say nothing of nose-to-the-grindstone procrastination — that it has crowded out whatever time I might have had for blogging. Authors frequently describe the process of book-writing as similar to giving birth to a child, a metaphor I always found faintly icky; but, hey, maybe they were right. I’ve got three kids now, and no blog.

Yet as I’ve worked away on the book, I’ve increasingly begun to feel intellectually claustrophic. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a cabin fever of the mind. The symptoms: I’ll get obsessed with a particular line of research, chewing away at it for days or weeks, only to realize it’s a) kind of half-baked or b) super interesting but not at all useful to my work. Or I’ll read a fascinating white paper, write a bunch of notes on it, but never crystallize a solid analysis.

I now think the problem is I’m not doing enough thinking in public.

For years, this blog helped me avoid getting stuck in precisely these sorts of intellectual culs-de-sac. I’d find an interesting scientific paper or report, get an idea, and start blogging about it. Then — yipes — during the process of writing the ideas would move in a surprising new direction, and I’d figure out what I was really trying to say. This is, of course, an age-old experience for all writers. The process of writing exposes your own ignorance and half-baked assumptions: When I’m writing a Wired article, I often don’t realize what I don’t know until I’ve started writing, at which point my unanswered questions and lazy, autofill thinking becomes obvious. Then I freak out and panic and push myself way harder, because the article is soon going before two publics: First my editors, then eventually my readers. Blogging (or tumbling or posterousing or even, in a smaller way, tweeting) forces a similar clarity of mental purpose for me. As with Wired, I’m going before a public. I’m no longer just muttering to myself in a quiet room. (Not that muttering to myself isn’t loads of fun, and does not make me SEEM CRAZY AT ALL.) It scarcely matters whether two or ten or a thousand people are going to read the blog post; the transition from nonpublic and public is nonlinear and powerful.

I was put in mind of this recently by a superb blog post — “The Art of Working in Public” — by Robin Sloan, one of my favorite thinkers/novelists. Robin was impressed by a couple of pieces of online writing — one by Matt Webb and one by one by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic. In Webb’s case, he was posting a regular weekly summary of his actions and thoughts as he goes about his job; in Madrigal’s case, it was a more-traditional piece of journalism — a description of his visit to the digital arm of the New York Public Library. Robin argues that both neatly illustrate the unique cognitive style of public thinking.

What is that style? It’s a delicate balance. The writers give you a glimpse into their thought processes — “they both conjure a sense that the piece is almost being written as you read it. It feels like they’re just a graf or two ahead, and if you picked up the pace, you could catch them— overtake their blinking cursors. It feels slightly chaotic and totally thrilling.” Yet, Robin points out, they don’t give away too much. They’re thinking out loud, but also privately; they’re using the public part to help catalyze their internal sense-making processes. Or as Robin sums it up in a lovely koan: “Work in public. Reveal nothing.”

Crucially, the rewards go both ways — public thinking is also a public good:

I tend to zero in on this kind of writing because I aspire to do more of it myself, and to do it better. Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. When you work in public, you create an emissary (media cyborg style) that then walks the earth, teaching others to do your kind of work as well. And that is transcendently cool.

What’s particularly delightful (and fractal!) is that Robin’s post is itself a neat illustration of the process. Soon after he’d posted his essay, smart commenters showed up and added terrific replies — including Saheli Datta, who composed a taxonomy of “partial revelation” in public thinking:

It seems to me that partial revelation has several different modes and motives: keeping the whole from stolen (traditional journalistic circumspection), inciting competitors to make a bad move (poker/Mad Men), preserving the integrity of the narration and the poetics of the audience’s journey or exploration into whatever it is you are producing for them (suspense-driven fictive works), enforcing a certain pedagogical focus or clarity (spherical cows), or just creating a mystique that promises there will always be more (a striptease). A good run of work could enfold all of these into itself, but the trick would be to make sure those on the friendly side of the masquerade ball didn’t misunderstand themselves to be on the duped side.

That’s just awesome. And this sort of awesomeness only occurs when disparate people bounce ideas off one another. We’ve done this throughout history, of course: Coffee houses, college classes, the scientific process, journals and letters to the editor. But the scale of it now online is astonishing and wonderful. When I look back over my old blog entries, frequently my favorite things are the comments — places where smart people corrected my thinking, suggested new ideas and sources, and refined the conversation. (One of the problems of the blog redesign I did a year and a half ago is that I lost all the old comments … I need to hire a geek to slurp up the old database and extrude it into Disqus.)

So the reason I blogged this, and am going to try (heh — again!) to blog more often is entirely selfish: I want to enjoy the catalytic force of public thinking.

(That lovely megaphone illustration is via the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr stream of Letizia Tasselli!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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