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Telling the Next Story, or Getting Lost Trying

We're starting the second day of the International Symposium on Wikis 2007 with a keynote in the overall OOPSLA programme (the larger conference with which WikiSym is co-located - some 1225 attendees, 90% male), by Peter Turchi. My laptop batteries are getting a little flaky, and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of powerpoints in this cavernous hall, so we'll see how we'll go.

He begins by poking gentle fun at OOPSLA itself, with its preponderance of acronyms and nerd-speak, and notes that his own background is rather different from this - but also that all of us here are engaged in the ongoing task of something new. So, in this way, software writers (most of the OOPSLA attendees) are writers just as much as poets and fiction authors are writers, greating new ways of information, and new ways of understanding. What's different here is that feedback is truly appreciated, that collaboration is a key practice here more than elsewhere.

He follows up on this by noting that some say there is nothing new to discover today - that all we can do is build on what's come before - but that we still continue to seek for the new. Writing is to deliberately enter terra incognita, to throw out the maps and invent a new reality, to get lost and discover new lands in the process. No map as yet exists to get the reader to the place we want them to go. To be lost is to want to be somewhere, somewhere we haven't been before, somewhere we have never been. There is virtue in getting lost, and to fail to get lost is a failure of the imagination.

Getting lost can be hard to do and requires preparation, in fact; it requires defying the map. But some days it seems like all there is to discover are the limits of our own personal understanding. What is necessary is to explore, to search, to find the new; for the writer, it is to turn from explorer to guide, to write new maps, to enable others to follow the story. The main issue, then, is to develop the technique to convey our vision into a text which can be used to guide others, or where necessarily to transcend the available tools and techniques in pursuit of the new.

It is difficult to reconcile our understanding of what a text is, conventionally, with what we want the new text to be; sometimes it appears impossible to imagine that anyone will ever transcend the conventions which exist today. Indeed, this is a matter of breaking out of the professional conventions - to be an amateur is to be able to see what others do not, and it is essential to work without any preconceptions whatsoever, to try to see only what exists. Seeing is an art which must be learnt.

Maps are crucial in this process; they influence our understanding of the world, but how we see also depends on part on what we want to see, on the maps we choose. Maps almost always necessarily distort reality; they are intellectual constructs, or consensual hallucinations, as William Gibson may call them. Maps assume certain conventions; in fiction writing, too, there are specific conventions on how to format and present ideas, which determine what ideas can be presented how effectively, and privilege certain versions of reality (or fiction).

We are also obsessed with collecting everything, with comprehensiveness (from maps to Google Earth to Wikipedia to the Web itself) - yet every map goes out of date the moment it is made, and there are plenty of unmapped spaces left in the world. Full comprehensiveness is impossible unless reality itself is reproduced in full scale; outside of this, maps are no more than abstractions, reduced and less accurate but deliberately distorted and abstracted. To do this is to take a point of view; no one map is more accurate than the other; such terms need to be defined in terms of our intention.

Being lost can be terrifying, but being disoriented can be fun; defying convention is part of than fun. Creativity is weighed down by technique, which limits new developments - and the same goes for maps. Perhaps being lost, Peter suggests, one should get loster. But for successful artists this is getting progressively more difficult, and some have introduced artificial constraints to push themselves to try new things.

Being lost is a prerequisite for reading, in fact - and nearly everyone can operate at a very high level of abstraction. Getting lost is not an entirely premeditated process, however - it is also a happy accident, informed by the information we hold subconsciously. The map is a crucial tool in the process, if only as a point of departure for getting lost.

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