Contemplation, a room of one’s own, and serendipity

A couple weeks ago, during a visit to a wonderful little bookshop in Ely, I picked up a copy of Virigina Woolf's A Room of One's Own. My wife had suggested I read it, as Woolf has some interesting and famous things to say about writing and concentration. Of course she does, but she has equally interesting things to say about the collaborative and cumulative nature of intellectual activity– and how we need to balance the private, solitary character of writing with the public, cumulative character of literature. 

If you know nothing else about Woolf, you know that she said "a woman must must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." "Intellectual freedom," as she later puts it, "depends on material things," our Romantic notions to the contrary. And we need that space because

to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likehihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dog will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will fail. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference…. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement.

Sometimes, particularly in her comparison of the luxurious world of the dons in the ancient Oxbridge colleges versus the cramped and relatively impoverished life in the women's colleges, I thought, most knowledge workers today would see themselves as more like Woolf than the dons. Few of us have beadles chasing interlopers off our lawns and protecting our ability to concentrate; we have both the virtue and challenge of overlooking busy streets, and having to think about the next project.

There's also this reflection on the challenges of concentration:

The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen…. But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds.

All worth knowing. But the rest of the book is about how women have been disadvantaged not just by the demands of their everyday lives, and their lack of financial resources, but by their not having a legacy of other women writers to draw upon and build on. The "early nineteenth-century novelists" like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters "had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help" to them:

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience o the mass is behind the single voice…. For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of hudging them separately.

One of the things that Zenware and the digital sabbath movement is good at is promoting the idea that you need a room of one's own to write; but I think they've either taken for granted that creative work is also inescapably collaborative– that there's a social life of information, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid put it– or not really thought about it. And as Jaron Lanier argues in his wonderful You Are Not a Gadget, successful software tends to lock in its early tacit assumptions and impose them on users and the world.

So contemplative computing has to have a social dimension to it.

Reading Woolf, and thinking about how it fits into my current work, also got me thinking a bit about the issue of randomenss or serendipity in creative work. We sometimes think about serendipty as a kind of random process in which you try a million little different pieces, looking for two that fit together. We imagine new ideas being like Lego or puzzle pieces, waiting to be assembled in the proper way. This is why mind-wandering is useful: it gives some subconscious part of our brains time to go through lots of different combinations until reaching the right one. Our minds are like computers, chugging away at a combinatorial problem.

But is that right? Certainly there are great examples of questions and answers– different pieces of conceptual Lego– coming together: Microsoft's Kinect uses some motion capture technology that was developed here at Microsoft Research for other purposes, and (as I understand it) the games group found out about this work long after starting work on the system. But many other cases of serendipity don't involve such clean matching of formerly separate parts: they require more joining and fitting. I've been thinking about Sameul Morse's development of telegraphic code, and the way he looked to printers' trays to help him figure out which letters were used most. I don't think it's accurate to say that printers had the answer to Morse's problem; it took Morse to translate that knowledge from one context to a very different one. Likewise, I read A Room of One's Own because my wife recommended what she had to say about the need to create circumstances in which one could be creative (in Woolf's case, be a writer of fiction); but it's not exactly like Virginia Woolf is an obvious resource for thinking about the future of computing. The connection wasn't one that is just waiting to be discovered; it had to be made (and later on, will have to be defended).

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