Map Makers and Story Tellers

In my job, I have a classic case of paralysis by analysis. A big part of my job is making sense out of things that are happening, explaining it to other people, and planning around it. My mind often swirls, seasicky, with work stuff, and I can't pin down what it is I want to say about it all. The colleague who did my maternity cover has said himself that I work in a minefield, so maybe it's not just me, but either way it's a problem to how I get my job done. 

Any act of sense making can feel like it's starting from nothing, whether you're a leading edge technology futures researcher or a student writing their first undergraduate essay. So to make sense of my field, I have been trying different ways of classifying and relating things, ideas, options. I've experimented with delicious, evernote and a recent foray into pearltrees (experimental co-curating with Lou McGill!) Nothing has stuck. Curating my world seems like an endless and impossible task. At meetings I've banged on about how  we can't paint a coherent picture of our corner of the world because our corner isn't coherent: it's necessarily ephemeral and opportunistic and responsive. I've been obsessed with how far we're zooming in to, or out of, the topic in questions, because what is useful to say depends on that perspective of distance. 

In the meantime what i've really enjoyed about 2010 has been finding distinctive voices and likeminds. I've defended polemic around the election in May and now around the cuts. Finding a collective voice means making some assumptions that people share some values: lets start from here, rather than lets start from scratch. I've enjoyed things like the RSA Animate talks and the TED Talks. I like voices and stories and authenticity. I'm even organising a conference session on the principle of real stories (a few more people to invite yet!). 

Because here's the thing: to make sense of the world, sometimes people make maps and sometimes people tell stories.

  • Bad things about map-makers: well, not much I can think of! Librarians map knowledge. Sure, no map lasts forever but let's start somewhere. The whole of academic endeavour is an ongoing revision of the map of all human knowledge. If people get too wedded to the map, the frame, the structure, it gets in the way of new connections, new ways of seeing. Sometimes mental maps can be too rigid, information structures can become unintuitive, so it can make change difficult
  • Good things about map-makers: they're brave. Its the easiest thing in the world to criticise someone else's way of slicing up reality. But without a starting point, many of the professional critics (in the academic sense or the pub sense ;-)), would have nothing to define their ideas against.
  • Bad things about story tellers: sometimes they're the "Talkers" who sometimes rule the academic conference circuit. They come in, tell their story about how innovative they are, and then, rather than go back to work to actually do innovative things, they prepare for the next conference. But hey, thats a way of earning a living. I suppose. That's a particular type of academic, the "sage on the stage" gone wrong.
  • Good things about story tellers: they reference the map, every now and then, for you to get your bearings, but overall they have a narrative. Watch an RSA animate and see how often they mention research elsewhere without being weighed down with it. They weave it in. Not to validate their story, but to enrich it, and to bring to your attention things you hadn't thought.

Me, I have stories to tell but I often end up trying to contextualise what I have to say to the extent it becomes diluted. I try to knit what I have to say into the wider conversation. I want to cite every conversation that led me to this paragraph, because I remember them! I've had some fantastic discussions this year, with family, at conferences, at meetings, on twitter. Of course they are the context for my ideas. I hope if you're reading this and recognise our discussions you don't feel slighted for not being namechecked.

On the other side of the coin I have lost count of how many "surreptitious seeds" I've planted in meetings that have been nurtured by other minds (in a bad mood I laughed at Dilbert's meeting pirates strip). Apparently, I shouldn't care whether people know my influence. Private victories and all that. 

But the thing is … The way people get rewarded and recognised doesn't match to their real influence. Tony Hirst is a prime example of someone with huge impact on a particular group of people. But what he says doesn't match the academic model of grounding everything in theory, delaying sharing results until you've got enough words to make a peer-reviewed journal. Or my colleague Rachel Bruce, who has incredible insight to trends and priorities in my field, but what she says gets poured into internal papers which the public never see, and provides the rationale for other people to do the R&D and talk about it in peer-reviewed journals.

So back to the map makers and story tellers. I should value both. I shouldn't underestimate the value of the map, I should give my story some signposts. But I should also not dilute my story in order to validate it and avoid criticism, right? Authentic distinctive voices can be networked social voices too, right? And since all knowledge is social, there should be a huge range of ways in which people can speak, cite, be heard and be cited, and it all counts towards the furthering of knowledge, right?


2 thoughts on “Map Makers and Story Tellers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s