CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

I love the highlighting, annotation, and bookmarking features of Hypothes.is, but desperately wish I had more direct access to own this sort of data on my own website in a more straightforward manner. (I’ve already got a PESOS method, specifically I wish I had a POSSE method.)

This is something I've too thought about with Hypothes.is. On an annotation level it appears tricky to do, but things look more tenable when you go one step above annotations.

Hypothes.is allows you to create page notes – annotations on the page level. So, technically speaking, you could write a blog post on your own site, grab the Markdown, and push it into Hypothes.is as a page note. Would it be redundant for longer posts? Sure, but I think it could work for smaller ones where you are generally replying to a piece of content rather than annotating passages.

This is something I'll try out starting with this post. (view page note)

A contribution to the “Blogging Futures” blogchain. Feel free to read and contribute here.

One thing I’d like to explore is the sort of persistent infrastructure that enables us to sustain work on big projects over long periods of time. For this, the technical side is the least of my concerns. Much more important is the social aspect: how can I feel like I’m writing for and with others, even at the early, opaque stages? How can I write and share strategically to get others excited about the same things that excite me?

[...]

I think what I’m seeking is a system for productively embracing risk, vulnerability, openness. A mindset that inclines me to put things out there, iterate, and respond to feedback. If I do this well, I think the writing will be better: feel more alive; elicit its own self-improvement, find its audience.

This passage from Brendan's latest contribution to the chain asks an interesting question – what does a persistent infrastructure for writing on the web look like?

Like others have written here, I think that this persistent infrastructure exists in many technical forms already – from aggregators and blogrolls to blogchains and Webmentions. That is where the emphasis on social infrastructure comes in. It is only in contributing to what's present that anything can persist.

That is why Twitter's Bluesky project can be considered a slap in the face to the many maintainers of decentralized social media platforms/protocols. As Anil Dash put it,

Don’t develop it, invest in the efforts that exist.

And I think we can take a similar approach to writing on the web. Investment doesn't have to mean large sums of capital but can be an investment of effort, to keep writing and iterating on the tools we have. That maintenance can be worth so much more than we realize.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel but we have to keep the wheels we have rolling.

Part of the American Colossus blogchain

There is a thread in the beginning of H.W. Brand's American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 that is revealing to our current technology landscape. It starts with the origins of shareholding.

Brands points to shareholding origins in railroads. These were some of the first large corporations in America, and such size required a constant surge of unprecedented funding that even banks were wary of:

The capital demands of the railroads required expanding the pool from which that capital might be drawn. One way of acquiring capital was to borrow it from banks or other lenders. Railroads did borrow, but often their business plans were too risky, their collateral asserts too meager, or the banks too cautious to cover all the roads' investment needs.

Borrowing alone couldn't scale these businesses. That is where shareholding comes in:

The other technique was to sell partial ownership—that is, shares of the railroad corporation. This spread the risk among the many owners and allowed for more-rapid expansion than borrowing alone did.

Shareholding not only fueled the railroads but sparked growth in the financial markets in New York. Where once thirty shares at most were exchanged, hundreds of thousands of shares passed through the NYSE.

This shift caused an even greater shift to happen, a present-day thread that had its origins in the Gilded Age of America:

The massive sale of shares led to something new in American economic history: the divorce of ownership from management.

Brand explains further:

Previously, owners typically managed their firms, leaving little distance between the interests of ownership and the interests of management. But as ownership spread to hundreds and then thousands of people, the vast majority of whom had no responsibility for day-today management of the firm, owners and managers could develop interests that diverged and occasionally collided.

And as you read American Colossus, this thread contains to reveal itself in the shifty schemes taken by these individuals and corporations. These acts start to make sense when considering ownership isolated from the day-to-day considerations of management – less about people and more about abstractions. Such a divergence can be seen in the tech ventures of today. Decisions can be justified for business growth (ownership) but at the expense of employees (management).

It makes me wonder about where ownership and management converge in tech and elsewhere, about how the split can be mended where it is broken and whether that can still happen with shareholding.

#AmericanColossus

I remember reading that novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia shared a journal throughout their marriage. The Morgan Library and Museum gives context to this interesting practice:

For the Hawthornes, journal keeping was a family affair. Both Nathaniel and Sophia kept private records periodically throughout their lives, and when they married in July 1842 they began to keep a journal together, each making entries in turn. They wrote in the same notebook—a small blank volume with marbled-paper covers and a leather spine—read each other's entries, and built a joint narrative of their intimate life as partners in their new home, the Old Manse in Concord.

In a way, the Hawthorne's were interacting on the smallest social network imaginable – a personal journal where one other person can see your entries and can also write inside it. But the journal isn't personal any more. That act of another reading and writing beside you turns it into something else entirely.

This makes me wonder about one of Dino Bansigan's recent musings about writing on the web when compared to journaling:

For some reason, I cannot wrap my head around the concept of writing for myself, but at the same time writing to an audience. I feel like if I can just look at it from a different angle though, I would figure it out. The closest thing I can think of, is writing for myself but writing in such a way that the content is palatable to readers. But then, wouldn't I be writing to an audience?

That question leads me to a realization... that it might not even be possible to separate the two when you are posting on a public website. The very nature of a public website means that there is at least one reader, myself, and then there's everyone else online. Something like a “one to many” relationship between a post and readers. So, there's really no way to avoid an audience when posting to a public website. If I really wanted to just write for myself, then my offline bullet journal should suffice. However, I already have a bullet journal and yet I'm still posting here. So there's something else that I'm looking for that I'm not getting from an offline journal.

That “something else” might be something similar to the Hawthorne's. Of course it might not be on that intimate of a level, but to have another individual read our entries and build a joint narrative alongside us – a vision of writing on the web as writing in a shared journal.

I’ll agree that there is no silver bullet, but one pattern I’ve noticed is that it’s the “small pieces, loosely joined” that often have the greatest impact on the open web. Small pieces of technology that do something simple can often be extended or mixed with others to create a lot more innovation.

I want to emphasize the “loosely joined” part of the above from Chris' comment. We need more people loosely joining software together in ways that create more possibility for writing on the web. In his talk “Don't Make Things”, Darius Kazemi phrased it as “Don't Create, Mutate” – to not think about building from the ground up but extending and remixing what's already there.

Now that I think about it, this principle of “small pieces, loosely joined” is how this blogchain technically came to be. I wrote a wrapper around the Write.as API so that I could easily update a post on my blog. From there I used Glitch to create an app (using a Python web framework called Flask) that used a form to grab information from the chain contributor and update the blog post with it. That app was then embedded on the very same post it was updating. Nothing overly complicated – just using tools that are already there.

It seems to be a work of creating connective tissue, not stand-alone structures from the bottom up. A humble kind of work, more like tilling a garden than constructing a blogging megalopolis. One connection at a time. I think creating this connective tissue aligns with Jared's idea of accessibility and empowerment that come from tinkering with your own site. It allows people to engage without feeling discouraged, to make an impact without needing to know how to set up a virtual environment.

So that's what I'd like to try more of – creating connective tissue between writing software. Start small and continue small. One connection at a time.

This post is part of Blogging Futures, a collaborative self-reflexive interblog conversation about the future of blogging. Feel free to join the conversation!

This post is part of Blogging Futures, a collaborative self-reflexive interblog conversation about the future of blogging. Feel free to join the conversation!

To make conversations more weblike than linear, more of a garden and less of a stream, to create “a broader web of related ideas”.

These sentiments from Chris Aldrich resonate with me. But how do we achieve this? Playing around with options to see what works best. Jared's sentiment hits the nail on the head here:

I enjoy tinkering with this site as much as I enjoy writing on it (if not more). A big part of the fun of blogging is hacking, at least for me. I'm definitely not suggesting that everyone needs to enjoy this, but talking about the technical sides of blogs is not only incredibly fun, but it's empowering. It makes how we make blogs more accessible and personal.

The fact that there is no “silver bullet” is the exciting part. All options are in play. What's more, we can combine them together to create possibilities that are more interesting than any single solution alone (Chris' suggestion of merging blogchains with webmentions comes to mind). A multiplicity of solutions can make blogs more accessible and personal for everyone involved.

If anything, this blogchain has reminded me about the power of tinkering when it comes to the web.

  • Techno-social tinkerers
  • Blogpunk tinkerers
  • Sociotechnical tinkerers
  • Blogging megastructure tinkerers
  • Metacognitive paradigm tinkerers
  • New blogging tinkerers

We need more of them, from all walks of life and of all technical backgrounds. Writing on the web is a more interesting place because of them. And if you're reading this, you are one of them.

So thank you. Keep on tinkering.

When I write a letter to my friend, I am sending it to her.

Now let's add a twist. I will write a letter and leave it unaddressed. The mailman I give it to doesn't mind this. In fact, unaddressed letters are his specialty. He takes my letter and roams about, destination unknown.

On his travels, a stranger sees the mailman, takes my letter from him, reads it, and starts writing a response. The letter and the response go to the mailman. He then delivers that response back to me. It turns out I can do the same with any unaddressed letter the mailman carries. So a game takes place, swapping and responding to unaddressed letters, a game that goes on indefinitely.

I think of that game as I interact on the web, a swirling collection of addressed and unaddressed letters in transit. Which unaddressed letters will I respond to? Who knows what response will turn into a series of addressed letters.

Part of the Blogging Futures course. Feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Infrastructure makes me think of not specific application but of broad application. How can we foster a multiplicity of blogging infrastructures?

Because there seems to be an understanding in this conversation that no single solution will solve our problems. Constant experimentation of writing possibilities is needed. For that to happen, we need places where that kind of activity can happen – where people can join in blogchains, where people can engage in anonymous publication as mentioned in the previous post, where people can get lost in labyrinths, where people can be a part of a new kind of republic of letters.

This is where I think the communities formed around FNS, Antilibraries, and Ribbon Farm come in. Through reading and participating in them I find myself thinking of alternative ways of how to thinking about and use the web. They give me newer paradigms from which to operate.

So perhaps I am contemplating what kind of communal infrastructure can allow us to better test out writing infrastructures.

Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices; the late war has done the work of centuries in this business; the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the each of accident.

— Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard, 18 February 1791

This comes as no surprise from the man who deemed the polygraph, a copying machine, as “the finest invention” of his age. The best defense is a good offense. Jefferson preferred proliferation over protection of an original source.

And now we have this networked polygraph called the web. This post cannot only be shared but dispersed across the web, mirrored as a static HTML site or as a Markdown file. I have many ways by which I can protect my writing from “time and accident.”

But the velocity of words have gotten to a point where “time and accident” reenter in ways unforeseen by Jefferson or his contemporaries. “Time and accident” now amounts to writing so much that what you are searching for is lost in the tonnage you've amassed on the web. All of the polygraphic tendencies in the world cannot help when we fall under the weight of our own words. It only makes it worse – just another straw on the camel's back.

It makes me wonder if the approach to proliferation has to be reconsidered. Do we need to scale back? Focus on a smaller oeuvre that we develop over time? Maybe a post that consistently grows into a longer essay?

Or do we need to throw caution to the wind and write, focusing on developing ideas that branch out and proliferate to others who take it and run wild? Do we need a url on an idea for it to inform our worldview?

I think this view's summation is best expressed in a passage from Julian Dibbell's “Portrait of a Blogger as a Young Man”:

Accept that the Web ultimately overwhelms all attempts to order it, as for now it seems we must, and you accept that the delicate thread of a personal point of view is often as not your most reliable guide through the chaos. The brittle logic of the hierarchical index has its indispensable uses, of course, as has the crude brute strength of the search engine. But when their limits are reached (and they always are), only the discriminating force of sensibility will do – and the more richly expressed the sensibility, the better.

Paraphrases always leave the interesting bits out. Take this popular quote attributed to Paul Valéry:

A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.

I learned that it is actually a paraphrase of Valéry from W.H. Auden. A great soundbite but far from the actual quote. Here is the full, translated passage from an essay titled “Recollection”:

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

New meaty meanings come out of this. It is odd to think of completion like slipping on a banana peel, but Valéry doesn't see completion as the point. A poem does not want to stop transforming. When a poet leaves a work behind, she is nipping the bud of a generative process. The poet, however, would just call it meeting a deadline. The poem is published and she moves on.

But the history literature is full of people who tended to one work over time. Two of my favorite examples are Walt Whitman with Leaves of Grass and Michel de Montaigne's Essais. Both works went through many editions – the first looking nothing like the final. And both tended their respective works until a universal accident befell them – their death.

So I then think of the web, where words (and bits) want to propagate and spread. Sure, we write and publish words at a constant rate, but how often do we go back and facilitate the stages of a post's inner transformation?

Perhaps that is not the right way to think about it. We are working on a different scale than Valéry and his contemporaries were. The web can give rise to prodigious output that rivals writers of past centuries. How can we keep up with every post we write? It would turn into spinning 100+ plates. There is an enormity to our output that even the most attentive would struggle with.

So what do we do? We could look at inner transformation on a macro level rather than a micro level – from the inner transformation of a post to the inner transformation of broader themes. Tend to the connective tissue that keeps our posts together. Maybe one has to recognize certain posts that require more upkeep because they are corner stones, upholding the foundation of the ideas behind your writing.

The web necessitates an updated approach to what “inner stages of transformation” means for writing, especially for blogs as such a work that Valéry wrote about.