It's the fifth--no, seventh--week of 2023 and I'm just now getting around to writing about my word for the year. Last year it was PRACTICE, in an attempt to spend my energy actually doing the things I already know help me that I never do. Like most years, 2022 went well until it didn't, and I finished the year feeling underwater.
My word for 2023 is MOVEMENT. The obvious sense of the word applies: I want to move my body more, do more yoga, blah blah, the usual New Years' stuff. It also encompasses a goal I have to go places more often, even if it's just on a walk to explore the neighborhood.
The word MOVEMENT also sums up my feeling that I need to keep things in motion more generally; given the speed I'm writing this newsletter, you can see why. I have a tendency to get stuck in decision loops, afraid to move on until I've gathered all the data or thought through every possibility, stranded on an empty page because I don't know what I'm writing yet. I avoid all movement because I can't tell which way is forward, which way yields progress instead of pitfalls.
The problem here is forward. Forward implies a destination. If I'm going forward, I'm headed somewhere specific, and if I don't know the route, I should stop and figure it out before I end up three hours in the wrong direction. Nobody likes writing several thousand words only to end up relegating them to the trash bin.
But I realized that central idea--this idea that there's one destination and there's one best way to get there--just isn't true, and as a historian of technology I should know better!
The entire point of my work as a historian is to show how people make things happen and nothing is predetermined. I specifically write against the idea that there's some single path of true technological or cultural progress and every development is either a step forward or a step backwards. There's no specific future inherent in any one technology. New technology changes the landscape of possibilities, of course, and shapes our options and our reactions. But it does not exert some mystical inevitable effect on society.
Technology history sometimes looks very neat, in retrospect. Moore's Law, as an extreme example, was really just an industry-spanning SMART goal: the number of transistors packed into an integrated circuit would double about every two years. And it did, for decades! But was that inevitable, or was that because the people involved in the computing industry expected themselves to meet that timeline, and allocated resources accordingly?
It can be hard to write about technology without using teleological language that assumes a sense of forward motion, and harder still to remember that what has already happened was not inevitable. In some cases, when the topic at hand is a group of people specifically pursuing a specific goal, talking about progress makes sense, but the emphasis should always be on their agency in making that goal a reality and how they adapt to ever-changing circumstances. And in most situations, the people in the moment don't share a universal sense of what the right goal or direction of "progress" should be.
So, then, why have I been holding myself to a standard of forward progress? I have goals, of course, just like everyone else. But there's no one predetermined best path to achieve them, and those goals will change along with everything else in my life. I just need to keep moving, and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
So, for 2023: Keep moving! Just write the words! Make the decision! Maybe they're all wrong, but I'll only know in hindsight!
This week I finished the audiobook for Dan Bouk's Democracy's Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them. It's a really lovely deep-dive into the 1940 US census, the social and political forces that shaped it, and how the questions captured the messy reality of American lives, or didn't. His approach to writing the book (which you can hear more about in his episode of Kate Carpenter's equally excellent podcast Drafting the Past) is refreshing, combining the scholarly rigor of an academic with an unusual authenticity and frankness about the research process, the complexities of a topic like the Census, and his own participation in his analysis.
It's the kind of book that's just as good for us historians as it is as a gift for our dads. And the audiobook narration is great, too.
A few weeks back, I asked around my writing circles to see how people handle planning for big projects, especially those without firm deadlines. For context: I'm facing the prospect of scheduling a defense date and I have absolutely no sense of what is a reasonable timeline to finish this damn thing, and nobody around me will give me a real deadline.
In the past, I've tried to apply project management lessons I learned from my years in consulting and software to my writing life. That, my friends, did not work for me. Agile might be a great engineering tool but for me it was an ADHD trap. Lots of people hire personal assistants--I've always said I'd rather hire a personal project manager. Is that a thing?
Anyway, a couple people explained how they use their past writing history to estimate their writing speed, and use that to tentatively plan out goals into the future. (This seems not unlike velocity tracking in Agile, actually ... so maybe I wasn't so far off?) I pulled my dissertation writing history into a spreadsheet to see what I could learn.
I write a lot while I revise
1000 words in a week is a decent week for me
I have never finished a chapter draft in fewer than 4 weeks
So all of this (along with the fact that I have many hundreds of hours of footnote-formatting ahead of me) makes it clear that finishing in time for the Spring Quarter deadline would be incredibly aggressive, which is not really the life speed of someone with two toddlers and not enough sleep. I'm bummed, but having data to ground this decision, rather than oscillating between it feels impossible and everyone thinks it feels impossible, stop being lazy has really helped.