Source: The noosphere, impersonal communication
Source: The noosphere, impersonal communication
I'm currently writing a newsletter issue in which I'm explaining a lot of stuff. Very little of it is original to me, although a lot of it is my own idiosyncratic conception of it, but instead something that I have synthesized from many sources.
Honestly, beats me. Could be anything.
This reminds me of a recent conversation with Kirsten in which she'd made a popular tweet and was trying to figure out where she got the idea from, and thought it might be me. Could have been, we're not sure. I've certainly not said exactly the same thing as she did, but I've said a number of things vaguely in that space.
I don't much care, honestly. The idea isn't mine. If it did come from me, I would have put it together out of ideas I'd picked up from other people. I might have combined some things, I might have tweaked it a bit, but ultimately I'm just a conduit for the flow of ideas. Words come in, at some point later words come out, and there's some relationship between the two but I can't really say that I got the latter from specifics of the former.
For example in the piece I'm writing at the moment (probably out some time next week) I'm talking about a bunch of ideas about how learning works. Are they original to me? No, absolutely not, I've read probably a dozen different books that have informed them.
But the way they informed them is mostly not traceable to a particular book. I read some books, they informed my practice, and I then wrote something based on that practice and my conception of it. The books left a significant trace, and some of them have been a significant influence on me, but I couldn't necessarily tell you what that influence was any more than I can tell you exactly when and how I learned English, I just did.
What to do in these cases?
Well I can mention some of the books I read, but even at a dozen there's no real chance of me remembering all of them (I recently bought a copy of "How children fail" only to discover I'd read it more than a decade ago. I still plan to reread it, and revisit it in a new light, but it's definitely ended up influencing me in ways I have no chance of recreating).
Additionally, I'll often be saying things that are at odds with those books, or frame things in a different way, or which you'd have to go through the entire multi year long process of digesting the contents of the books before you can squint at them the right way to see that they're deeply instrumental to what I'm saying.
And what to do about the books that are even less connected to the topics I'm writing about? My thoughts on education have definitely been influenced by reading anarchist and ethnographic writings from James C. Scott, but it would probably take an entire extra essay to unpick those links.
All of these problems are soluble. I could keep a detailed log of books. I could go through any books I've read that seem relevant an pick out the connections. I could carefully trace out the lineage of every thought I had in the essay and where its influences come from. None of this is unachievable.
It does, however, have one crucial problem: It's hard and boring and I don't wanna.
It's also not that useful. The reader doesn't care, and the authors I'm citing probably don't care either.
This may sound like excuse making, and perhaps it is, but I think it's an important consideration. If you raise the bar to writing, many pieces that were previously worth writing no longer are, and this loses out on significant value. Having to carefully attribute everything or else you're bad and you should feel bad will inhibit me, and others, from writing many things that would improve the world.
Norms of scrupulously crediting all your sources mostly come out of academia, where they're largely important because credit for ideas is a key part of the academic status game, and publications are supposed to be very clear about what their novel contribution is as a result.
Outside of academia you can just... not do that. It's mostly fine. There's no need to tie credit-assignment to citation like our lives depend on it.
Instead I propose the more modest set of citation norms:
- When you already clearly know where something comes from, obviously you should cite it and give credit.
- Do not explicitly claim ideas as your own unless it's really overwhelmingly clear when in possession of the full facts that they are.
- If someone attributes an idea to you that is not yours and you notice, politely correct them (for example I'm often credited for the term "life-complete problems" due to my article of the same name, but credit is due to Mechanical Monk, as I explicitly highlight in the piece).
- Recommend sources that you have found valuable, both casually and in your writing, regardless of whether they're directly the source of the idea you are writing about. For example I thought Discourse Person was an excellent piece about related issues recently - I don't know if it informed this piece much, but it's worth a read either way!
Everything is a remix, we're all riffing off each other, and worrying too much about the credit assignment game within that ruins the flow.