To be small, and to not be small

Draft of 2005.07.24 ☛ 2015.03.16 ☛ 2016.07.16

May include: academiaculturephilosophy&c.

Alas for Ivan Tribble and his diverse and unexpected consequences.1 We will remember you fondly, when you have been outed. You have shone a light we can use to see the future.

Whoever “we” are.

I think that a mirror—like the one you’ve provided—shows us many of the things we expect to see. Since before the realization that “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the users of the Web have built [or transformed] themselves into a skein of myths and norms. It’s an old-school flaw of mobs, whether they’re “smart mobs” or “wise crowds” or something else: they tend to conflate the daily use of a new technology with a real understanding of it. Send them on a daily commute in a car, and they will think they know their own home town; let them talk on the phone as they walk down the street, and they will imagine they’re more “connected” to their friends; give them Microsoft Word, and they will think that knowing how to underline words for emphasis and change from Times Roman and Helvetica is all they need to know to write a beautiful book; give them a spreadsheet, and they will imagine themselves programmers or accountants; give them all a camera, and they will imagine that endless scrapbook libraries filled with devil-eyed families against lightning-illumined blank walls constitute a bastion of personal history against the attacks of time; give them the glib non-explanation of “chaos” in Jurassic Park, and they will use the notion to describe their lives, their management techniques, and their feng shui styles; construct for the world a logistics system unprecedented in history, and they will use it to cover the face of the land with Barnes & Noble and Wal-marts, and plant gaudy purple petunias in their gardens and Harry Potter on their kids’ shelves.

Whenever this happens, the true owners of these skills wake one day to find themselves immersed in a sea of harsh noise and misapprehensions. That morning, a big chunk of the world which last night was filled with the thankful customers for their hard-earned skills, now “knows” how to do it for themselves. And is even willing to offer time-saving advice.

And these new pseudo-experts do it so wrong! It cuts the eye, it hurts the ear, it makes the world ugly and stupid and bad. Can they understand the beauty they lose, when they don’t walk? meet face-to-face? create careful typography? conduct a thorough analysis? consider composition and lighting? know that mathematics does not connote? Learn to appreciate the Long Tail?

No! They blithely read Dummies’ Guides, they create and form communities and devour faddish popularizations, they spout jargon (not even the real and centuries-honed jargon, but newfangled stuff that sounds so stupid, or worse: misuse the old words in new, very very wrong ways) at one another, they promote the noisiest among themselves to positions of unwarranted admiration… god, come on experts, doesn’t it make you wanna puke?

This isn’t a rhetorical straw man, by the way. I am this very expert, with this very expert’s reaction, in every single context on that list. I’m naming names: I am the expert typographer who hates to see ugly desktop-published crap, the man who wants you to write unit tests for your spreadsheets, the guy who pretentiously uses “complex systems research” instead of “complexity”, the one of the few who still buys plants the Wayside Gardens catalog instead of Home Depot.

But I’m lazy. I just gripe and bitch and moan. Kids these days. Look at all the trash. Jesus, how stupid can people get? Hell ← handbasket… got it?

Between puking and puling, some not so lazy experts—only the most altruistic—they feel for these folks, see them being taken advantage of, and want to help. “You know,” they offer, “that’s all very nice. It has some potential. But someday, when you’ve tried this ticky-tacky out and found it lacking, you’ll want to ask us about this fancy stuff we’ve broken our backs developing through the years. You’ll come back to us. Just wait and see. Meanwhile, we’ll be right here, when you need us. We’ll forgive you.”

And to some extent this is true: There are a few guidebooks to the more famous back roads and by-ways, and very expensive typesetting packages can be bought for people who want to make “professional-looking” books, and a handful of students sometimes learn enough advanced mathematics to teach them what “chaos” actually is, and consumers sometimes seek out artisans and local businesses. People, a few benighted souls, still pursue a few of the Old Lost Arts, in silence and isolation, or at most bolstered by scant distant like-minded aficionados. Because the old way, the right way, was better.

But we never come back, you know. Expertise has been irrevocably supplanted. It has been, to coin a word, tailed—dropped straight through a cultural crack caused by some disruptive cultural or technological innovation, and left blinking and calling out, there in the fat-but-dwindling part of the Long Tail.

So, you say. Tribble is [arguably] an academic, talking about getting a job in academia. How does this have anything to do with using em-dashes correctly, or not planting your flower beds wrong? That’s a bit of a reach, isn’t it?

Nope. “Craftsmanship” is just one type of social structure that can fall apart this way. All sorts of stati quo can have their legs yanked out from under them, and they all make more or less the same squawking and flapping noise when it happens.

What is the problem with writing online? It sidesteps the standards used to gauge quality of applicants. What is the problem of developing an online social network? It subverts the existing social network upon which all hiring decisions depend. Where is the risk in making flip, unconsidered pop-cultural references in your online writing? It shows you have not given due effort to joining the elite craftsmen of the academy, who in many cases signal their membership by their very detachment from the fly-by-night world of online discourse. Where is the harm in talking about your personal problems? It brings salient things to the attention of people who currently hold power over your future—which it may be illegal for them to be influenced by.

How rude is that, huh? Sheesh, people. We have a perfectly good way to do things, to schedule meetings, to create barriers to entry and credential our membership, to gauge value and productivity. And yet you insist on talking as if there’s some other thing, some “life” thing out there on the internets?

The internets. The undistinguished, generalization-prone laity. A bit of a rabble. O thou inexpert world, who think you know the first damned thing about history, or politics, or public policy, or genetics, or mathematics, or even computer programming.

Here indeed is the mirror’s message: Who you talk to and associate with, and what you say, and how you say it, is crucial to building a life in academia. Just as Tribble has said, on the face of it. Academia depends on these standards.

Academia as it exists today, that is.

You academic reading this have now been shown the basket, the little well-oiled wheels on the bottom, the precipitous slope, the darkness thereunder. And you can guess, and maybe hope, what lies down there in the flickering gloom—a lesser place maybe, but also greater, a Small World that is not small at all. Maybe the flickers are not flames, but the LEDs of routers. Or glistening coins. Or the flashes of paparazzi cameras. Or maybe just the hiss and glare of a television tuned to no channel in particular. We’ll all find out together.

Those academic folks who have not attended to this, and who refuse to do so and thus believe themselves firmly set in the friendly Old Ivy-covered Tower, are still along for the ride. Let them, for the time being, remain oblivious. It’s best for them. Someday they will write books on how to really be an expert. In whatever it is they’re doing. Meanwhile, consider carefully who you talk with online, and what you say, and how you say it. For it puts you at an advantage, now the basket is on its way. Perhaps the noisiest among you will be promoted to positions of unwarranted admiration. Perhaps some of you will take to printing new warrants of your own.