Screens, Research and Hypertext

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This is the third time I've started a book. The fourth, if you count my dissertation, which is book length if not really a proper book.

The first attempt was a Mill-ian take on just war theory, begun during a summer stint as a visiting fellow at the Callaghan Centre for Conflict Studies. That one fizzled out when I decided to leave academia. The second was abandoned when the editor who reviewed it suggested that I rewrite it into a normal logic textbook.

I'm not much for normal.

This one has been gestating for nearly a decade. I first pitched a choose-your-own-adventure project at The Century Foundation—a small think tank whose research program at that time could charitably be called eclectic. (A more accurate assessment was fellows wrote whatever they wanted, which in several cases meant not much.)

TCF moved in a different direction. It's much more vibrant and focused than it once was, though there's a part of me that remains haunted by what might have been were it not for Janice Nittoli's tragically early death.

In the years since, I've written on a number of topics around writing and publishing text on the web. Like TCF's erstwhile research program, my writing has lacked a single through line. But there is perhaps something of a family resemblance. Most things connect to at least some other things, though rarely in a way that builds a single, sustained argument.

A little while back, I stumbled across a relatively obscure little volume called Intertwingled, a set of essays about Ted Nelson't pioneering work in hypertext. Intertwingularity is Nelson's term for describing the fundamental interconnectedness of human knowledge.

Nelson is a purist on the topic. He calls attempts to categorize knowledge "forced and artificial" and suggests that we humans keep trying to impose structure on knowledge when we just can't.

It's a call to arms against information architecture as we know it.

That's a kindred spirit, if ever there was such a thing. I ended up a philosopher in part because I couldn't choose one thing to study. History, ethics, political science, economics, literature, law, chemistry and physics have each competed for my attention at various times. It wasn't until my junior year of college that I learned that you can put the words philosophy of in front of nearly any noun and find someone writing professional articles about it. I loved being able to draw connections between ideas. Most of the courses I taught mashed up two or three different disciplines.

In my post academic role of information architect, I both love and hate building taxonomies. Finding the links between the types of work that my clients produce is my jam. Unfortunately, I inevitably find too many of those links.

I'm the sort who's forever rearranging his own bookshelves. Every possible categorization scheme separates things that should be together. Does Mill's On Liberty go with the rest of his collected works? With other idiosyncratic consequentialists like Hume and Moore? With mainstream utilitarians like Bentham or Singer? Or with 20th-century liberals like Rawls and Nozick? The answer is yes.

That brings us back—at long last—to the work at hand. It doesn't so much weave a narrative as it does lay out some story parts and offer a few suggestions for weaving them together yourself. It's less a unified field theory of publishing research online and more wouldn't it be great if research outputs could....

There's a decade's worth of thinking in here. (Two, if you count the various digressions into philosophy.) There's no chance that I'll remember to name everyone who has contributed. If I've left you out, it's because I'm dumb and thoughtless, not because you weren't important.

Elizabeth Deis and Lowell Frye introduced me to serious, interdisciplinary scholarship and taught me to write proper essays. (Sorry that last one seems not to have stuck.) Patrick Croskery and A. John Simmons forced me to add nuance and complexity to my thinking, while modeling the delicate art of approaching new ideas with a critical eye and an open mind.

Kristina Halvorson put a name to the discipline that I accidentally found myself practicing post-academia. Erin Kissane, Karen McGrane and Noz Urbina taught me to practice it more systematically.

The content strategy community is amazing and welcoming and generous. Jeff Eaton, Carrie Hane, Michael Andrews, Mandy Brown, Deane Barker, David Hobbs and Eileen Webb have all sparked the kinds of ideas that churn my brain into overdrive—and they've been kind enough to engage with me as I fumbled my way toward responses to the challenges they've laid down.

My college cross country coach once advised me to pick out a practice partner who ran just a bit faster than I thought I could go. It's sound advice for the life of the mind, too. Jess Zimmerman, Deborah Kilroe, Lucy Muirhead, Jessi Stafford, Chris Gosling, Gina Eosco, Kati Stevens, Courtney Myers, Joey Carolino, Nick Scott, Richard Darlington, and Leonora Merry—thanks for pushing me to keep up.

That note applies to every single one of my colleagues at Soapbox, as well. My fellow strategists—Amanda Forsey, Naomi Isaacs, Elena Berger, Adriana Castaneda, Cormac Bakewell and John Schwartz—sorry for inflicting all this nonsense on you All. The. Time. I'd like to call out specific instances of influence, but at this point, your ideas are so intertwingled with my own that your influence is really just *waves hands at entire book.*

Maija Keskisaari—our late-afternoon Slack chats inspired me to reengage with philosophy texts I'd put aside for a decade or more. Many of those ideas have found their way into this work.

My counterparts on Soapbox's digital design and web development teams—Esa Matinvesi and Scott Euser—regularly filter out my craziest ideas and then inspire their teams to design and build the ones that aren't totally insane. (And possibly one or two that are, if we're being honest—though they're kind enough not to say so out loud.)

I had the amazing good fortune of having Žiga Kropivšek work on the design of this project. Žiga rolled with my crazy creative brief (I'm looking for something that has the spirit Dadaist art and a '90s pre-web vibe, sort of like David Carson-era Transworld Skateboarding) and somehow made that work.

Erika Perez-Leon shepherded this project from here's this thing I wrote to actual finished publication. I've been lucky to work with Erika for years, first as editor of some articles I wrote for On Think Tanks and later as a client. I'm beyond thrilled that she's now a colleague at Soapbox.

Mom and Dad: thank you for supporting me, not only when I said I was going to major in philosophy of all the crazy things, but then when I went on to get two more degrees in the same absurd field.

Matt, you're probably the only person in the world who could get me to reread Kant's Groundwork voluntarily. It's amazing to watch you grappling with ideas that so captivated me at your age—and thrilling to watch the new directions you're taking those ideas.

Josh, it's remarkable how often we end up in the same place, but from such different directions. I've always been a bit (okay, more than a bit) in awe of how your mind works. There's more than a little of your influence in this project.

And Caroline. I don't even know where to start. Thank you for patiently listening to me go on (and on!) about these topics for a decade. Thank you for being my first, best and most careful reader. And thank you for helping me to see the beauty that is everywhere—including in myself even (especially!) on those days when I have trouble believing it exists. I love being your tree friend. This is for you.

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