söndag 16 oktober 2011

On books on "Big Ideas"

I've subscribed to The Atlantic (previously called The Atlantic Monthly) for 8 years or so. Most is good, some is great. A short article in their latest issue (October 2011) is great. I read it yesterday. It's called "Meme weaver" and it's written by Marshall Poe. The style is great:

"When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. [...] Unfortunately, I didn't really have anything deep to say. So [...] I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books about ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations about some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That's something."

But the content of the article is even better, a behind-the-scene story of the publishing industry and of best-selling tech books. It is the story of how Poe, after he switched to work for a magazine, "stumbled" over Wikipedia in 2005 and wrote an article about it. The timing was right and Wikipedia was hot when the article was published. Could this be his moment? He sent off an email to a literary agent about writing "a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet". The agent called back within minutes.

To get a book contract, three things were needed; 1) A platform, 2) A big idea and 3) A catch phrase:

Platform: "Professor" is a platform, "writer" is another one - check!

Big idea: "A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of "This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful". [...] In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was "Wikipedia changes everything". I had done no research to substantiate such a claim" - check (with some hesitation).

Catch phrase: "I needed a catch phrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail." The trade editor suggested "WikiWorld" - check.

Poe had all three, and after a round of bidding ended, he also had a publisher and a promise of a large number of $$$. "But what was the book going to be about? We weren't sure. Something to do with mass collaboration and how it changes everything. We'd work it out". He was asked to complete the book in six months. Impossible! Well then, do the best you can.

So Poe started to do research. He unfortunately had to retire the idea that "Wikipedia changes everything", because while it changed some things, it obviously didn't change everything. Reality is convoluted, complex and messy, and it can't be boiled down to catchphrases and anecdotes. Poe strayed from the big-idea template.

Still, everything was fine and dandy with the editor up until the moment when it wasn't. "E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. What had happened? My agent explained that my big idea - which in fact was no longer my big idea - had a short shelf life. That's why my editor had wanted the book in six months. Other Wikipedia books were in the pipleline. Some of the authors had higher platforms, bigger ideas, and pithier titles than mine. The clock was ticking. After six months, my editor [who previously liked the book] no longer liked the book. Too complicated for the average trade reader. He advised me to speculate. "Unleash your inner Marshall McLuhan," he said, and rewrite the book. This was excellent advice from a smart man with decades of experience in trade publishing. But I realized that I had no inner Marshall McLuhan."

In the end, Poe couldn't write a big-idea book, because he realized he didn't believer in big ideas. "reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points and long tails."

He submitted the manuscript to his editor, who rejected it. "Wikipedia's moment had passed, and my big idea had vanished. He killed the book, and the big number disappeared. I don't blame him, he was just doing his job."

End of story and time for a few reflections of my own:

1) Everyone was just doing their jobs, playing their pre-determined roles like marionettes, but the result is a race to the bottom. While Poe realized that he didn't believe in big ideas, such ideas are just complicated enough (i.e. simple enough) to sell with gusto - so both the prospective audience and publishers love them. A simple big idea dressed up in a bombastic book-length suit makes the reader feel smart. So what if reality is more complicated than what can be captured by a big-idea book? Well, money doesn't lie! The real complexity of reality (and of emerging technologies, and our use of them) is taxing, contradictory, confusing. The real complexity of reality is road kill on the information superhighway, something best left to (full-time) academics with time on their hands.

2) Poe obviously doesn't much like Surowiecki's "The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations", Gladwell's "The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference" and Anderson's "The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more". They over-simplify a complex reality would be his verdict. But my students love them and often mistake these big ideas for self-evident truths! Their intellectually curiosity (as it may be; sometimes great, oftentimes not-so-great - any student of mine reading this text is obviously an exception) not seldom both starts and ends with Anderson's Long-tail-concept. And us teachers accept it (happy that they read something beyond the course literature rather than nothing?). But uncritically parroting someone else's big-idea concept is not the same thing as thinking deep for yourself. Note to self: I have to think more critically about how I treat students' references to big-but-simple ideas in their (master's) theses and elsewhere.

3) Even though I cant find Poe's Wikipedia book, there is another book called "WikiWorld". It's was published in January 2010 by Pluto Press and it's written by two Finns, Juha Suoranta and Tere Vadén (I've never heard of them). No Amazon customer has reviewed their book yet. It's at number 1.9 million in Amazon's best seller list. It's safe to say that their book isn't a big-idea book; "The tension between technology and society is presented with reference to Marx, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marcuse".

4) I didn't like Gladwell's tipping poing much and don't understand why everyone else did. Surowiecki's book is still on my desk (will probably be read and probably within a year from now). I have no plans to have a closer look at Anderson's long tail. I've read so many references to it that it feels like I have an intimate knowledge of Anderson's big idea and don't need to actually read the book - not that his big idea was that complicated or difficult to understand in the first place... Or, I might change my mind and read it just to try to call him on his "bluff" (?). The original book is five years old but the revised and updated editions is "only" three years old.

2 kommentarer:

  1. I agree with your analysis "Everyone was just doing their jobs, playing their pre-determined roles like marionettes, but the result is a race to the bottom." but this sends cold shivers down my spine. The results of this race are presented to the world not as "big ideas" but as scientific fact. Elongated essays have become a replacement for knowledge. Sure they may be interesting and well written but they all too often cherry pick their way through facts to squeeze them into a pre-determined answer (the big idea).

    Just a comment on Point 3. Suoranta and Vadén's book has also been released online under a copyleft license (I keep it among my free book list http://www.digital-rights.net/?page_id=3403) so their position in Amazon bestseller may be compromised as their core audience have probably read the pdf?

  2. While they might sell fewer books because of that reason, I don't think it would have been a bestseller anyway - for some reason!