“Do Something Boring”

Oblique Strategies

This was not the advice I was looking for when I consulted my Old Media version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies this morning.  The new media version’s offering was more intriguing: “Be Dirty,” it suggested.

Oblique Strategies Be DirtyOk.

I started cleaning my office.  Boring, but not dirty.  The opposite of dirty in fact.  The instruction to “Be Dirty” made me take a mental step to the side, which prompted me to clean, which cleared my head, and brought brought the seven most important things that need to happen to today into focus: Write this blog post; find an article in Nauka v Sibiri, figure out what Dmitrii Belyaev was thinking when he started breading silver foxes for tameness in the 1950s, make pet care arrangements for upcoming travel, get ready for the NMFS, find a way to fix the broken shade in the entryway, sign-up for a flu shot, fold clothes from last week’s laundry.

Oblique Strategies helped me get unstuck, but I would need the internet for everything on my list except for folding the clothes.

Lateral thinking, the kind of indirect approach to creativity and problem solving that Oblique Strategies stimulates, might not be the first thing that comes to mind when reading Vannevar Bush’s, As We May Think.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all.  He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.

But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways.  He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.

And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text.  Yes, it conditions the ground for the development of Oblique Strategies (Old Media).  But more importantly it suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.

Lauren talked about the connections she sees between the associative powers of new media and her work as a librarian in her post here:

“I’m really interested in exploring how the changing information/communication/media landscapes impact peoples’ access to information, their ability to learn and contribute back, and, ultimately, their understanding of the world. Library work gives me a concrete “lab” in which to explore this, and the information I find then can be directly fed back into my library work to make the library more relevant.”

I am examining a similar process with my students this semester by using a blogging project to crowd-source content for a course on Soviet History.  We are only a few weeks in, but I’ve already seen a significant uptick in the level of engagement and quality of the research students produce when they use the associative powers of the web to turn information into knowledge reflecting their unique interests and aptitudes. At the same time their work as individuals contributes to a networked and globally accessible repository of insight about the Soviet experience.  It might be a living Memex.  And it is certainly not something boring.

4 Replies to ““Do Something Boring””

  1. Two comments:

    First–I am so excited about your blogging project. I hope it’s going well. I have love working on these types of projects with students and look forward to hearing your thoughts on how it’s going.

    Second–Dmitrii Belyaev’s foxes!! I first learned of this on Radiolab. Such an interesting story!

  2. Thanks, Lauren! I’ll get something posted about the blogging project soon and look forward to talking to you more about it whenever you’ve got time. We are all learning a lot, and the “Weekly Editions” continue to inspire: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/soviethistory

    Yes, Belyaev’s story is pretty amazing. It’s especially remarkable that an experiment begun in such inauspicious circumstances and with so little fanfare has generated so much interest across fields and around the world. The Radiolab episode is a great example. I’ve got some issues with the theories about human evolution and aggression presented at the end of the episode, but it just illustrates how important the concept of “domestication” is to being human.

  3. Just as you point out, I’m also most impressed by Bush’s ability to foresee that connecting pieces of information in meaningful and unique (personal) ways and recording those associations in some form will revolutionize our ability to manage and access the vast accumulated and ever growing knowledge of the world. Although I’m far from being a digital native, even I can see the value and significance of that. I appreciate the connection-making, whether among people or pieces of information, that has become possible, and I take advantage of it daily. But when I get overwhelmed, I still find the best solace in manual labor.

    1. I do too! It’s strange that the more I immerse myself in new media and technologies, the more strongly I feel the imperative to stay “off-line” for certain parts of the day, and committed to physical activity. The digital world might stimulate (augment?) my brain, but nothing sharpens my thinking like a good run, an hour of gardening, or fixing something that’s broken around the house.
      I loved your post about Vannevar Bush, and am eager to hear what you think about Norbert Weiner and J.C.R. Licklider. Weiner in particular, had the humility and doubt that may have been missing in Bush.

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