Monday, March 23, 2015

Collaborative Writing

Andre Bréton and Paul Éluard did it, modern poets also do it sometimes. TV writers however write collaboratively on a daily basis. They think up and write down shows together, as a group, in what is called a ‘room’ where shows and episodes get defined and developed. Lest we think this a rare, exceptional type of collaboration, the TV writers have gotten it down to a working routine, complete with artifacts (whiteboards, easels) and assistants (who try to write down everything) supporting the process. The details are fascinating, and encouraging for all others who need to write collaboratively, quickly, in a way that fits a larger blueprint; you may want to check them out here:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Attention Theft Alert

I recently spent a most delightful and productive morning in a Parisian coffee shop. Delightful and productive mostly because, as the waiter informed me, the room I chose to sit in did not allow the use of computers or telephones. I might have already started to get up for another one of their lovely rooms, when I decided to ease myself back in the wide wooden chair, by a vegetal wall. So I rearranged my notebook, magazine, and article and, half-amused, half-curious, set out to see how long I could go without distractions. (Gloria Mark’s research shows the average we can ‘go without’ is 11 minutes).

The answer: two and a half hours spent reviewing a paper, writing for my journal, and enjoying a short story. It was quiet around me, and it helped me create some quiet space in my head as well. All of it made it easier to listen to what I really thinking, identify how I felt. It is not that I have a difficult time spending interruption-free mornings or afternoons. It is that the interruption-free time was imposed by the rules of a public place. So I owe the thought- and emotion-rich morning to the good people who decided to restrict people’s use of electronic devices in one room in their coffee shop.

So when a few days later I discovered Malcolm McCullough’s book Ambient Commons I knew just how much I had been robbed by needless interruptions and meaningless information plastered all around public spaces. McCullough ponders the consequences of what he calls ‘attention theft’ for our lives as dwellers of information-rich and visually polluted places. He argues about the need to tame the technologically mediated urbanism into a human place that allows for attention, surprise, boredom, insight. Places such as the lovely coffee shop on Seine’s bank are as necessary as fresh air, and they are a natural response to surroundings invaded by information media.

I am now trying to compile a list of such oases in the midst of the big city.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lost stories: On the power of taking a historical perspective

I read today a great article on the Lost Stories in the Information Design History by  GK Van Patter, one of the co-founder of Humantific's (a Sense Making and Change Making Consultancy) website.

The article presents the work of an early visual thinker, yet mostly unknown: William Brinton (1880-1957) and his book Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts published in 1917, which includes the main principles and methods used up to now in infograpics and data visualization. Not only the work of Brinton is very interesting for those interested in visual thinking and infographics, but what I really appreciate was the historical perspective taken in this post.

Van Patter writes: "Some historical landmarks are well known to many, while others remain off most radar screens, especially to new generations. Particularly online, we notice a general lack of historical awareness and crediting in many current data visualization, design and innovation-related discussions." 

From this, he concludes:
"At Humantific, we have significant interest in the forgotten stories, lost stories, and off-the-beaten-path landmarks of sensemaking and changemaking history, as they have the potential to inform present day understanding significantly."

I was very excited to see this approach embraced by a consultancy as it is very close to the perspective we took to investigate the role of writing in our book, but a perspective which does not always seem relevant to all, in particular in a world where "not everyone wants to acknowledge that each generation tends to learn from, build on, or divert from the previous generation’s ideas and output."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thoughts of writing from a "Mashup of Law + Social Innovation + Design"

It was really exciting to read Nicole Skibola's blog post on her thoughts about our work on writing, in particular as it seems as her experience as a trained attorney and human rights practitioner, now involved in social innovation and design.

Here are some of her thoughts on writing:

"Reading this simple concept [about the reflecting mechanism of writing] was such a breath of fresh air to me as a professional rigorously trained in the written word, where deconstructing arguments, concepts and ideas are the heart of a legal training and practice. I have noted in my time as a management consultant the frustration I encounter with powerpoint decks. Yes, everyone likes a graphic interpretation or a flow chart, but far too often, we fail to develop ideas and strategic thought as we would if such concepts were encapsulated in the written word. (...)
In my current career transition, I spend a lot of time thinking of my value add as a trained attorney, admitted to the New York and the California bars. Law is indeed a trade, and unfortunately lawyers develop tunnel vision believing they are only capable of practicing law. What I have realized in the past few months is my incredible ability to play with the logic of a problem or an argument – to unroll each sub-issue, to glue them back together, zoom out and see the system, zoom in and attack the micro-issues that are throwing off the whole system’s equilibrium. I didn’t learn how to do this by thinking like a designer (though I do value the different approach to problems that designers offer). I took it by thinking first, outlining second and finally articulating a strong, extremely structured argument in writing.
Writing has become my life source in many ways – its how I deal with happiness and sadness, how I experiment with who I am and who I want to be professionally, and how I have thrived in all of my work places.  (...)"

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Talking through the Cuban Missile Crisis

One of advantages of writing is that it can give people - writers and readers - the time needed to reflect, to formulate thoughts carefully, to ensure thoroughness and nuance. Studies of written communication (including our own work) have show this. Very interestingly, this idea is corroborated by scholars who have studied the other fundamental modality of communication, oral exchanges. Thus, David Gibson's recent Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Princeton University Press, 2012) examines the deliberations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the height of the crisis in October 1962.

Gibson's careful analysis shows the twists and turns of the decision-making process in which all the alternatives considered had strong downsides. He also shows how the "conversational machinery" is not conducive to systematic comparison of alternatives. This is because of the expectation that interactants say something relevant to the last point made, and because of the conventions of turn-taking. As Gibson concludes in a Nature article about his book, "talk is useful for decision-making, but its conventions do not ensure that sustained attention is given to all the things that could go wrong."

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a high-stakes, high-time pressure situation in which the oral communication modality shows its limits. Given the urgency of the situation, the written modality would not have been more adapted. However, in less urgent conditions, the machinery of writing, its mechanisms - for ex., the objectification of one's thoughts and thought process, the process of reflection - may be more conducive to systematic comparisons and even to more rational decision-making.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

Two days ago Charlotte Higgins wrote a very interesting post on The Guardian's Culture Blog on the Lost Art of Letter-Writting which started with a question: As books on handwriting, letter-writing and paper are published, are ready to fall back in love with slow communication?

Noticing 3 books published this fall ( Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink; Ian Sansom'sPaper; and John O'Connell's For the Love of Letters) on 3 related topics: handwriting, letter and paper, she suggested that more than a drifting away of writing, this could suggest a revival of it. I would agree  on the revival of writing as a modality, although I'm less certain about the handwriting aspect of it. After reading Higgins' post, I thought of 3 very dear friends and thought of writing to them... and I ended up sending a long email to one. I hope to write to the two others soon. I know that if I were to write them a letter, they might never receive it... Yet, I enjoyed the email correspondence that I have with them and instead of boxes where I used to keep letters, I have folders in which I keep email correspondences. Yet, I might give it a try and send them letters this weekend.

I found particularly interesting though the slow pace associated to letter writing and the potential for reflection and creativity. I love this beautiful excerpt mentioned by Higgins, a quote from a great piece by Catherine Field in the New York Times:

A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.

Beyond the specific genre discussed by Catherine Field and the role of the materiality of writing in allowing a dialogue, I would like to emphasize the creative act of writing as a modality. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Treasure of Written Texts

Let's think for a moment about some of the societal and political implications about orality and literacy, about having a society based on oral or on written communication. As literacy scholars have pointed out, orality came first, historically. However, the invention of writing gave a boost to empires who needed to manage the vastness of their posessions, and writing-based cultures came to think of themselves as stronger, even as 'superior' to orality-based cultures.

As it often happens though, the story gets more complicated. Orality comes to be associated with an idealized past, with a time when humanity was more innocent, closer to nature and genuine feelings, and less corrupt. Just as writing-based cultures imposed themselves, all around the world, over orality-based ones, the historical primacy of orality was elevated to superiority. Plato was the first prominent proponent of this kind of thinking, and these ideas have thrived over the centuries.

One instantiation of this type of thinking is in the studies of organizational communication, where oral exchanges are seen as far richer and more nuanced, in a word, superior to written texts. Largely, our book is an effort to show that writing is not superior or inferior to orality; in organizational contexts, it simply is a communication modality that affords the accomplishment of important tasks: creating an organizational memory, sharing and developing knowledge, expressing emotions, building communities among people who rarely if ever meet physically. So much for the supposed superiority of orality.

Lest one thinks these debates around orality and literacy are somewhat removed from present-day concerns, one can turn to Jean-Michel Djian's recently published book Les Manuscrits de Tombouctou. Djian is a professor at University Paris VIII. His book is a call to save the treasure of manuscripts kept in this city situated in the north of Mali, which was a major center of scholarship between the 14th and 17th centuries (in the 15th century over 25000 students were studying there) and is currently under siege from islamic groups.

Djian's provocative hypothesis is that this treasure of manuscripts, which sheds a very different light on Africa's intellectual life before the European conquests, has been forgotten for a very long time (til the 1980's) because the French colonists and the griots, (storytellers and singers, the repositories of oral culture) had a common interest in promoting and portraying the local culture as oral (less sophisticated for the colons, less threatening for the oral griots). For Djian, collecting, indexing, and studying the Tombouctou manuscripts is a duty for humanity who can thus re-discover its rich traditions and high level of knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, ethics, poetry, law, commerce, pharmacology. At the same time, the story Djian documents also represents an episode in the never finished battle between orality and literacy, between the power of the spoken word and that of the written sign.