Down is just the most common way out

✍ July 23, 2012

I recently spent a week in a tower looking down on Philadelphia, riding up and down to talks and bacon-filled breakfasts and warning the other residents away from the fabled Elevator that Gets Stuck, dividing my day among the nine parallel “tracks”—as if they were disconnected and unrelated in any way from one another—of a technical conference in a field I “work in”.

I spent the week watching people negotiate the various fields they say they “work in”. Watched them talking and arguing, enlightening and redefining one another through their descriptions of their own work, their geography and family trees (the Germans made a big showing; the Virginians not so much), their social strata (students, post-docs, professors, corporates, and then the strange inexplicable escapees like myself). Some of us acknowledged and honored the 20th anniversary of the most influential work in the subject, John Koza’s Genetic Programming: On the Programming of Computers by Means of Natural Selection, and I watched as we lined ourselves up (this “field” we are) along the expected lines and ranks all over again.

I sat for an hour or so after the poster session until the hernia pain I was having subsided, and a little crowd of enthusiastic Computer Scientists got caught in the eddy I made and sat down to chat about Artificial Intelligence and science fiction and what makes Genetic Programming the last best hope for the future of Strong AI, and so on. Now and then I’d open my mouth and say something about how the notion of AI has become a fragile social shred of Cold War hubris, how even the idea of designing software is subject to interpretations these friends and colleagues have never really understood, about the ways that statisticians and software developers and sociologists do their work without stepping into these ontological traps… but those went over like a lead balloon.

I was watching a “field” folded up into itself, addressing itself. A closed field. And that’s OK. Fields are ubiquitous and ephemeral. They’re what we make of them, and the use we derive from being able to tell simpler stories is more than enough to compensate for the obstacles they can occasionally create.

It was thrilling to watch my conference’s “field” being born, twenty years back. There is no less thrill in seeing the little cracks and folds, the seams splitting and the periphery falling away, as it falls apart.

Soon all sorts of raw materials will be exposed and made available again. All sorts of possibilities are stored already there in Res Potentia (as an old friend would say)—in the echoes of what was said along the way but ignored and forgotten in the rush forward, and the glimpses folks have had (but kept to themselves) of other fields’ storylines. Components, parts and passages, the stuff nobody has ever done a close reading of, the unrecorded histories and the things nobody even bothers to say “I thought of that first!” about.

Turnover. Progress. A network unstitched and rewritten.

Something like fifteen years before the tower conference, I’d been asked to leave my position as a graduate candidate in Biology at the University down the road from where I was now looming. I went to the conference thinking I might find time to be melancholy or bitter with that shadow down ’tother end of Walnut Street, like the other survivors of Grad School Culls I’ve met. Graduate School and the academic life are so important-feeling when you’re that age.

But there were no pangs or twinges. Graduate School—and the Academy more broadly—are no less stories than my “field” is a story. We use them as excuses for the embarrassing mad thoughts and trivial affectations we entertain while we fill our days with life. More broadly, they’re memories of the Cold War and its resource limitations, and little mirrors of the states in which we house them: imperial, familial, collegial, or ruthless. We speak of them as though they’re tools, and in a sense they are. But their utility comes not from what they do directly, but the boost they give the scansion of our lives after the fact.

It all reads better when you’ve done what’s expected, don’t you think? Contra common usage, you don’t do Graduate School. It’s a thing that explains what you’ve been doing, why you look that way or act that way, why your enthusiasms and naiveté are so refreshing or enraging. Graduate School is itself a “field”.

I realize I never did tell anybody at the conference what it is I really do. What my “field” “really” is.

They tend to just assume, when you’re at a technical conference. A few old friends and colleagues know a bit better, but they still can’t quite connect the dots. Beyond some jokes about me being a spy of some sort because I was so cagey about my plans and scope and affiliations, I don’t think many folk really noticed. We talked about the things I’ve done of course, but that’s how this sort of thing works, and it’s the common ground for any conversation.

I confess that I look forward to the day we all meet at some other future conference and compare notes, and end up frowning and smiling about the different stories we’ve told about the same stuff. I’ll be there, smiling and frowning and shrugging right along with them. Pick a plane or a cave wall to project the shadow of the Real World onto, and tell a story about the outlines it makes. The trick is to shrug and smile and pick another plane and do it all again to get a completely different shadow, until you find the one most useful for the day. It’s a magic trick for most folks. Now and then I try to share the secrets, but when I start to explain the habits and practices and assumptions that make this stuff feasible and interesting… those go over like a lead balloon.

That story—itself about stories—isn’t simple yet.

At the Walnut Street University fifteen years ago, I was asked to quit making a scene by begging my thesis committee to treat my computational whatever-it-was (“research”?) as Biology proper. The story I can tell now is that I was freed to do the work in the proper “field”, the one that brought me back to this conference in the tower fifteen years later. But in the context of the day it was a blow. Look at the young enthusiasts in schools around the world, learning and eager and listening to the stories we build towers out of. Ivory towers, conference towers—all kinds.

It’s good to fit. To have a simple story everybody knows, and use our stories of similar work and similar life to shore up the walls of the place we all work together. Our “field”, our “University”, our “discipline”.

The story I tried to tell when I was in Graduate School down ’tother end of Walnut Street, before I knew how to do this sort of thing, was about Biological Engineering, and Maker Culture, and explaining things by changing the world. It was all the start of something happening in some other tower, I realize. The story I end up telling now is how doing that same work has nearly broken my old friend and advisor (or at least made him sound like a crackpot to our peers), how the world has caught up and it pleases me to see people in places besides the other end of Walnut Street doing the very work we wanted, and how much pleasure I take in knowing people who knit DNA and create jellyfish from rat cells and threaten to cure not disease but a worldview.

Different plane and a different projection of the same real stuff. The world doesn’t give a damn what we say about it, so we’re free to make new stories on demand. There are always new towers being built, and raw materials getting freed up as older ones are disassembled.

I wave down Walnut Street, and never really think about it again except with a smile. I wonder where those people live now, and what it’s like in the world for them. Is it the same? Is it transformed yet?

Always be willing to wait for one of the Elevators that Doesn’t Get Stuck.

What I do is edit. I’m an Editor. It will be a little while before folks realize what that means, is all. And I’ll be shrugging right there alongside them as we find the words to use when we explain it, and tell that story more usefully, more simply. And maybe a cure will start to come along with these new stories, as more people realize they have trouble telling unfaceted tales, linear tales, stable tales of one thing leading to another.

Being an Editor has a lot to do with salvage, with surfacing and suggesting uses for the raw materials freed up when our stories change themselves. You site yourself at the edges of several shadows, and you squint up at the sun to see what’s really up there, and over time you learn to make some shadows of your own. Every story changes itself in the telling. That’s not merely our work as Editors, but our lives.

Nobody would believe me if I came right out and said that I create the field to suit the work I want to do. On the fly; not from whole cloth, but from the chunks of other fields as needed. Nor will they believe you, when you are cured of your profession and start to merely do what’s called for to make yourself useful.

At least that’s the story I tell myself. It does the job.

Later: Laurent Bossavit has reminded me of Venkatash Rao’s similar essay from a few months back, far less elliptical than mine. Go and enjoy. It’s good to fit.