Collaborative Work on Formative Influence
You are welcome, exhorted even, to collaborate in developing this site. Certain convictions, concerns, and hunches inform this welcome and exhortation.
We are in the midst of a historical juncture, possibly quite an extended one, in which established forms of communication, including those of high intellect, are in significant flux. New ones, still indeterminate in character, are undoubtedly coming into existence. But if we are passive about it, will those new forms serve our most important purposes well?
There is cause for concern. Older channels for intellectual communication are inflexible, viscous, and disorganized. Newer ones spring up. The best, like Wikipedia, are rapidly becoming monolithic tools of reference — perhaps in parallel fashion, the OED is poised online to render other English dictionaries obsolete. These are powerful tools, but better reference tools will not suffice to renovate the house of intellect. And surrounding these, a world of impassioned groups and solipsistic cynicism has been rapidly arising, empowered by the ease of online expression. But the cacophony of so many voices makes it hard to hold responsive interactions among peers together. We are awash in opinion, but weak at sustaining the exchange of serious thought.
What are suitable, liberating paths for innovation? Historical beings, we can only answer through trial and error. We diagnose, as best we can, what seems problematic, and we essay trials, hoping to ameliorate the situation. Many will turn out to have been errors, but some may succeed.
A quick diagnosis points to a serious hiatus — attention to the way formative influence works through the extended course of a life is weak. Formative influence works slowly in the midst of innumerable confounding variables. Hence it does not lend itself to controlled research of high quality and import. At the same time, we lack good journals for exchanging sustained reflection on how persons develop their capacities and interests in interaction with their circumstances and its cultural resources.
Currently, intellectuals are caught between a rock and a hard place. In the winner-take-all ethos, a fortunate few stumble into easy access to elite publications, and they then have to over-produce to keep up in the squirrel-cage of reputation. The rest of us shunt off, either into solipsistic blogging, or into publication via peer review. The latter at least can lead to a secure income, but at an intellectual cost: the review panel cuts thought to fit its Procrustean bed and the remains then slowly bleed to death, awaiting publication in the backlog. My exhortation — let us try to create a better means to think together.
Intellectuals develop their skills and ideas when they can publish quickly, without fuss, to interested peers, get criticism, rethink, respond, and interact, with all concentrating together on a few big topics of real intellectual worth. Peer pressure, not peer review, is the best means to leaven quality. Online publication has a cost structure that makes open access feasible and shared editorial policies, constructed through interactive emergence, can make a site self-organizing and self-correcting. Formative influence — cultivating it in our lives, understanding how it works, what sustains it and impedes it — is a big topic, one that affects all deeply through every aspect of life. Enough said for now — My Canon: Reflections on Formative Influence is not a static syllabus. It is a trial at an online publication through which a community of autonomous intellectuals can sustain and develop formative influence in their lives and in the lives of others.
Thresholds to Collaboration
Editing is not hard — millions do it on Wikipedia. It is, however, a two-stage process, which can be confusing to some at first. You edit a page by clicking the "edit" tab at the top, which activates a plain-text editor, which works only with the very basic 128 characters, and shows no formatting. In addition to entering text, you use particular combinations of the basic character-set to enter formatting instructions (the elemental ones are on a cheatsheet) and then click "Save page" to the lower left below the editing box. Then you will see the text you entered formatted according to the instruction codes you entered. You can cycle back and forth to your heart's content with the "edit" tab and the "Save page" button. I personally consider this form of editing to be like a good stick-shift on a well-tooled sports car, compared to a WYSIWYG editor, the automatic drive on the family sedan — the stick is a bit more work and on first learning it you may stall now and then, but you quickly get the hang of it, and then you have a finer sense of control.
For those first learning how to work on a site like Studyplace (and for those of us for whom these things are old-hat as well), it is helpful to keep a couple distinctions in mind.
- First, don't think of it as learning a bunch of rules specific to a particular site or program. If that is what you do you will never build up any transferable understanding that you can draw on in moving from one site or program to another. Aim to understand how digital tools of expression and intellectual creation work in order to use them fully for your purposes. In reality, different sites and programs all basically work in the same ways, with each hiding those basic operations to greater or lesser degree and facilitating work with them by the user in somewhat distinctive ways. A two-step text editor such as that in MediaWiki hides much less of what gets done in actually controlling the creation of a text than does an elaborate editor such as Microsoft Word, which reduces just about everything to a mouse-click on one or another item of one or another menu.
- Second, it is helpful (in general and specifically in using the help resources for Studyplace and Wikipedia, and working optimally with HTML) to keep in mind a basic distinction. Editing creates and affects substantive content and the cogency of its expression. Editing determines what the words (and images) say. Formatting affects the appearance of the content, how it looks on the page or screen. Editing, which in this usage includes writing, composing, itself, as well as revising, is considerably more important than formatting. There is a border where formatting choices needs to be effective and appropriate relative to editorial content. A two-step text editor in which formatting codes are entered manually makes it difficult to engage in formatting for its own sake and it tends to preserve the writer's awareness that editing and formatting are separate processes in which the former has primacy over the latter. In my view, such tendencies are healthy, serving the mind akin to the way regular exercise strengthens the body. And at the very least, you will find it much easier to make good use of Wikipedia documentation by remembering the editing affects content and formatting appearance.