Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When the cavalry's not coming: some rules of thumb for standalone citizen journalists

Do as I say, not as I did.
"..."following the money" might be productive here."

I said that a year ago, before this journey began. And while I didn't end up following the money, I did dig into the story, and it dug its claws into me; and while the digging's not over, the outline's now clear.
(What's the outline, you ask? Patience...)

But oh, the time it took, that it didn't have to take; the mistakes I made... So, in the hope that this might save someone else from tarrying in dumpsters in blind alleys, if they undertake a quest like this one, I offer some rules of thumb.

1. If you're a newbie, try to avoid doing it on your own. If you can possibly find a group to work with, containing someone whose judgment you trust, enlist them. Doing it on your own is fine when it's going well, but really, really sucks when it isn't. And when those around you have zero or negative interest in your quest. or are using "local" epistemology - which they will, in a small town - it's mighty hard to summon up the will and the confidence to boldly go where you need to. Also, someone who knows more than you do will see more than you do, which - if your mind is open to recognizing it - can save you a whole lot of time.

2. Look up once in a while. It's great to focus on the minutiae - that's what alerted me to this story in the first place - but unless you stand back from your digging once in a while to survey the terrain, it might take you a long time to realize that the story's much bigger than just the one piece that caught your attention.

3. History matters; as Paul Graham says, it's all the data that we have so far - and if the history comes in book form, you also get the infrastructure for interpreting the data. Knowing the relevant history will help; you're going to need some structure to understand your story, and you don't want to have to build it yourself from scratch.

So again, look up; find the shoulders of giants, and stand on them - take time away from web and phone and go read books, since they contain pretty much all* the wisdom that we have so far. People and institutions and arrangements don't spring up de novo, they have antecedents; and knowing what's happened and what's been discovered before will cue your brain into recognizing similar themes in your own investigation. I've spent much of the last few weeks reading, and things just leap out at me now that had slipped my notice before.

The books are particularly helpful if you're not getting support elsewhere - like Machiavelli (the human, not the metaphor) you can spend time in the cognitive company of experts -
"When evening comes...in this graver dress, I enter the courts of the ancients, and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world."

We primates don't thrive alone, and the right authors help to ameliorate the cognitive isolation.

4. You will be able to perceive subtleties that are real, but that you'd never be able to convince someone else of*. So open your mind to recognizing this, and thus to sensing when you should just save your breath.

5. Be prepared to consider the unthinkable; sometimes it's been consigned to unthinkability for a reason.

No comments: