“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


The Map that Precedes the Territory

I’ve sometimes joked that I only have hobbies because they are necessary for me to indulge my meta-hobbies of project management, product design, and logistics. Sometimes, I worry that I get more pleasure from the planning that goes around an activity than doing the activity itself. The planning the travel and activities for a trip, the well-organised and well-chosen set of accessories or tools for doing some craft, preferring to be the person who organises the meetings and makes up the groups rather than being a participant in the activity.

I wonder where this comes from? I think part of it is from growing up in a household where there wasn’t much money to spend on leisure stuff. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood planning what I would do when I had things, making tables and catalogues of things, and endlessly going over the same small number of resources. I remember planning in great detail things like model railway layouts, devising complex electrical circuits, and filling notebook-after-notebook with code in anticipation of the day when I might finally have access to a computer to run it on—a computer which would be chosen not on a whim, but from detailed comparison tables I had drawn up from catalogues and ads so as to get the very best one for the limited money we had.

The intellectual resources I had access to were interesting. We had some books, bought from W.H. Smith, brought home from the school where my father taught, bought from a catalogue of discount improving educational books which was available at School (which introduced me to the excellent Usborne books which I still think are a model for exposition of complex concepts), or bought from the eccentric selection available at remainder shops (I particularly remember three random volumes of encyclopaedia that I had bought from one such shop). The local library was a good resource too, but I rapidly exhausted the books on topics of relevance to me, and just started reading my way through everything; one week I remember bringing home a haul of books on Anglicanism, resulting in my mother’s immortal line “You’re not going to become a bloody vicar, are you?”. Catalogues and the like were an endless source of information too, I remember endless poring over detailed technical catalogues such as the Maplin one, and spec sheets from computer shops, compiling my own lists and tables of electrical components, details of how different computers worked, etc. I remember really working through what limited resource I had; endlessly reading through the couple of advanced university-level science books that a colleague of my mother’s had given to her via a relative who had done some scientific studies at university.

There’s something to be said for trying damn hard to understand something that is just too difficult. I remember working for hours at a complex mathematical book from the local library about electrical motors, just because it was there and on an interesting topic, and learning linear and dynamic programming, university level maths topics, again because there happened to be a good book on it in the local library. These days, with access to a vast university library, books at cheap prices on Amazon, and talks on almost every imaginable topic available on YouTube, I think I waste a lot of time trying to find some resource that is just at my level, rather than really pushing myself to make my own meaning out of something that is on the very fringe of my level of possible understanding. Similarly, I remember the same for courses at University—I got a crazily high mark (88% or something) in a paper on number theory, where I had struggled to understand and the textbooks were pretty ropey, whereas the well-presented topics with nice neatly presented textbooks were the golden road to a 2:1 level of achievement.

Talking of lectures and YouTube etc., another thing that is near impossible to have a feel for was the ephemerality of media. There were decent TV and radio programmes on topics I was interested in, science and technology and the like, but it seems incomprehensibly primitive that these were shown once, at a specific time, and then probably not repeated for months. How bizarre that I couldn’t just revisit it. But, again, in made it special; I had to be there at a specific time. I think this is why lecture courses remain an important part of university education. About 20 years ago I worked with someone called Donald Bligh, who wrote an influential book called What’s the Use of Lectures?, which anticipated lots of the later developments in the flipped classroom etc. He couldn’t understand why, with the technology available to deliver focused, reviewable, breakable-downable, indexable online material, we still obsessed about the live lecture. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I think lecture courses deliver pace and, at their best, model “thinking out loud”—particularly, for technical and mathematical subjects. When everything is available at hand, we just get stuck in focus paralysis; I do that with things I want to learn, there are too many things and it is too easy when something gets hard to not persevere, and to turn to something else instead; or, I spend endless amounts of time in search of the perfect resource, one that is just at my level. This is what I wasn’t able to do, 30 years ago, in my little room with limited resources, and so I got on with the task at hand.

How can we regain this focus in a world of endless intellectual resource abundance? Some approaches are just to pace stuff out—even MOOCs, where the resources are at hand and could be released, box-set-like, all at once, nonetheless spoon them out bit-by-bit in an attempt to create a cohort and a sense of pace. Another approach is pure self-discipline; I force myself to sit down with a specific task for the day, and use techniques such as the Pomodoro technique to pace out my time appropriately. Others use technologies to limit the amount of time spent online, such as web-blockers that limit the amount of time spent either on the web in general, or specifically on distractors such as social media. But, I still think that we don’t have a really good solution to this.

Leave a Reply