Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Embracing technology

Good reads is a site I joined back in 2007 on the recommendation of a friend. Five years ago I felt it might be another internet time waster, but as the years have gone by, I have found myself unable to regulate or account for my reading.

I'm starting to think that perhaps listing what I have actually read, and what I want to, mean, absolutely ought to read, might be an excellent idea.

It's all part of my concerted attempt to embrace the web. Unfascinating for those of us who realized we were riding a revolution as big as Gutenberg quite some time ago. But perhaps some will sympathize.

I have an iphone, and now, hot on its heels, an ipad. My world has inverted. I am always where the information I need is. I can pull the universe to me.

My time management has changed on a dime: something I learnt to do while in a recent research job with very tight deadlines was to use an online calendar to plot my every action. I loathed doing this at the time and felt as if I was going mad in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which I might need to schedule going to the toilet.

Yet I did come to accept that it helped me be more realistic about what I could actually do in a day. As opposed to what I expected of myself, wanted to do, hoped to achieve, combined with all the frankly fictional achievements I fully intended to get done at some point in the next few years, and might tackle today.

The tenses I learnt to use while in this job were reduced (painfully) to the present, rather than the imperfect, perfect, future and conditional.

An online calendar, I learnt to see, was sufficiently separate from my physical self to function like a mirror. Screen-based tools will do this. It reflected back to me how much I attempt to distort time in order to bend it to my will, and how ineffectual and Cnut-like this behaviour is.

So I now have a tool to read my texts and emails anywhere I am, to make calls and take photos wherever I happen to be, to make notes on all the distinct areas my maternalized life is chopped up into, without losing little bits of paper... I can review a book without taking a massive laptop to the library... I can move between appointments and to do lists without getting them muddled up...

I can separate out and bring together the different fanfolds of my life with a mechanical tool, rather than try to do that work inside my head. I no longer try to stuff time, like piping cream into profiteroles. Instead I am learning to break down time into minute portions. I am learning to exercise temporal portion control.

It is a wilful simplification, ultimately a narcissistic one, but it is also a clarificatory one. I spent my early adult life training my neuronal pathways to make lateral connections all over the place, and all over time (and thus made my life much more complicated than it needed to be). The binary, linear efficiency of my online calendar literally rules out some of these connections. It helps me park them, so that I can ruefully remind myself that clothes must be ironed, food hoiked out of freezer, hair cut, and bills paid today.

This in turn is helping me see that I never prioritize what I really really want. I keep that in a sacred place, never to be touched. Liking writing the books in my head.

My reading, like my writing, was kept in a sacred space that I only organized if it was for a curriculum, a reading list for students. 'Reading' was only to be unpicked in the service of supporting others, never myself.

In setting myself a 'reading challenge' through the Good Reads site this year, a little bit like training for the 5km run I'm going to do with my daughter this summer, I can (albeit with a shot of irony) regulate my reading habits a little more. I can enable myself to notice what I have read, when, and what I thought of it. Let's face it, this way of working might have helped me a lot as a lecturer in French literature....

So, in 2012, here and now, I am starting to tear down (or at least look into) some of my 'sacred spaces', because I am starting to accept that as you get older, do more stuff, bed down the compost of experience, things actually do start to disintegrate, mush down, and might need a little dusting and tidying up.

At first, as a young adult, aggregation and synthesis — mushing — is very important, because it's a vital outcome of learning to be able to move rapidly between what you are absorbing, and your capacity to interpret and act on it.

Later in life, though, compartmentalization, however inimical it seems to the creative mind at the outset, is actually a good way of archiving what's been done so that you can return to it.

So that it does not weigh you down.

So that you can move between the particular and the general without doing the sum on your fingers each time.

Compartmentalization, like multiplication tables, signifies big adding and good storage, a rule-bound kingdom, not the breaking of connections I used to think it was.

Compartmentalization, ironically, preserves connections in a different sign system, and can, if it's done effectively, enable dynamic granularity in your thinking: if you compartmentalize well, you can retrieve data at the atomic level and see how it connects to data at the universal level — without being overwhelmed. You can see the links between the big and the small in wonder, rather than in panic.

When I set out on writing a book about indifference, one way I thought of starting was by creating a database of all the references to indifference and its cognates in A la recherche du temps perdu.

I fell at the first hurdle: nothing in my training had prepared me to construct such a big database (there are thousands of references to 'indifférence' in Proust — in fact one of his short stories is called L'Indifférent).

I say 'nothing in my training': I had the excessively painful memory of trying to construct a database of all the digressions in A la recherche, to show a kind of typology of evasion. I nearly died in the attempt. Or at least fell into a swingeing depression for a year.

This memory was traumatic enough to stop me in my tracks when it came to another database of references. All this happened back in 1998, and in the intervening (ahem) fourteen years (I had two babies! I lived in Australia! I wrote my phd on self-justification!), the mere thought of thinking about that database was enough to prevent me getting any further on it.

But having worked for an online organization, which relied on Excel for its data analysis, I am creaking into understanding that humanities thinking based on linguistic meaning-making sign systems is not absolutely other to thinking based on numerical sign systems and operations.

Both are systems for enabling representation and interpretation. There are links between qualitative and quantitative thinking. It is possible to use quant data in a qual way. But you have to work really hard to do it, and it is true that a lot of so-called data analysis is simply data reproduction, without any genuine analysis, or reading.

I recently downloaded a free trial of Scrivener, which is supposed to revolutionize my archiving and organizing systems when writing a sustained project like a book. This is something I'm scared of, but also want and need, if I'm to try to write the book on parenting I have been carrying in my head like a gestating baby for the last 3 years.

'Scared', I see, is just a readjustment of 'sacred'. What I hold sacred is often also a place I am scared to look at too closely, for fear I will not be able to control what I find there....

No comments: