I didn’t have any plans to write a ‘super-secret’ monograph when I started my sabbatical. Instead, I assumed that I would mostly be working on desktop fabrication and electronics. One day I was looking through some old notes that I had taken and I had a crazy idea. In itself that isn’t unusual, since one of my working principles is to take a note whenever I find a primary source that is weird, funny or salacious. What was unusual was that I didn’t feel like sharing my crazy idea. In part, I was afraid that if I told other people about it, they might pooh-pooh it before I had a chance to develop it. My idea needed buttressing so it could “withstand the assaults of a hostile environment.” (I think that I read Science in Action too carefully as a student).
Since I’m working entirely with digital sources, I decided to put together a set of interacting programs–an ‘ecology’, if you will–to speed up the process of finding, harvesting, clustering, excerpting, and keeping track of my sources and my attempts to make sense of them. The original collection of programs consisted of mostly off-the-shelf software tied together with a bit of Automator and Python scripting as necessary: no use in reinventing the wheel. And what I discovered really surprised me. Since the mid-1990s I’ve been going around telling people that the digitization of primary sources would change the way that we write history. I took all of my notes during my PhD on a succession of handheld computers. I even blogged about the future for three years in a resolutely optimistic mode. What I hadn’t quite realized is that at some point I should have started using the past tense: that future has already happened. If you want to work in a new way, everything that you need is ready to hand. With all-digital sources and a set of tools for working with them, my research process was about an order of magnitude faster than it was on my last monograph. Instead of asking myself, “Do I really want to spend seven years developing this idea into a book?” the question had become, “Is this idea worth ten months of my time?” Changing the information and transaction costs meant that doing a crazy project was a lot less of a commitment. It also meant that if I wanted to, I might write ten times as many books over the course of my lifetime as I had been planning to write. I still find the process of writing to be difficult, however, so that may not happen.
So before I knew it I was about two years into writing another monograph, at least by the old way of measuring investment, and I still didn’t feel like telling anyone what I was doing. There are pros and cons to talking about your topic while you’re writing. The pro is that you get the benefit of other people’s good ideas. That’s a con, too, because the community tends to shape your work toward a consensus that everyone can agree on. After reading Infotopia I’m more wary about the wisdom of crowds, including (or especially) the wisdom of peers. Plenty of time for peer review when I send the manuscript to a press and it goes out to readers. By that time, I will have already answered most of the objections that I could think of, and the reviewers will help me to distill any excess crazy out of the final product.
I was kind of dreading encountering well-meaning colleagues while on sabbatical, because the first question that everyone asks is “What are you working on?” Is it rude not to tell them? So I started telling people the short version of the above story, and have found that colleagues are actually quite supportive and encouraging. Some think that it is a great marketing gimmick or that I should include a decoder ring with the book. Some tell me about the drawbacks they’ve encountered in telling other people about their work in progress. Some like the idea of having complete freedom to change their minds while they’re working. And instead of sharing the topic, I’ve made it a policy to share my method with anyone who is curious. We end up having an interesting discussion about research methodology instead of a less interesting discussion about my current idée fixe. Let’s face it: very few people are as interested in your topic as you are, but many of them are deeply engaged in research practice.
If you’re dying to know about the method you can e-mail me for details, but I will be posting more about it here soon.