Information as activist resource

6 June 2009 by Jennifer

More thoughts about remembering or losing information, this time from an activism angle.

I talked before about the idea that key team members for an event could each have apprentices, and the pros and cons of that.

In comments, Martin raised the question of whether the people volunteering to be key team members would be (a) willing and (b) able to work effectively with an apprentice. This got me thinking more about the purpose of the idea.

Part of my attraction to the idea of apprentices is that it brings future organisers up to speed, kind of “in real time and ready to go”.

But as I thought about the whole thing some more, I realised there was another issue I hadn’t consciously articulated at the time, perhaps actually more important. What’s behind the “apprentices” idea for me is at least partly the desire not to lose hard-won experience and information.

(This line of thought is actually what prompted me to write my earlier post about the art of remembering, but I thought I’d keep my general ponderings separate from this more activism-specific one.)

The written word

As I pondered Martin’s comment, I found myself thinking: connecting people “in real time” is only one way of transmitting skills and history (albeit sometimes a very effective one). What about the role of writing stuff down? I’m a fan of that too.

In a sense, writing things down is even more reliable than the apprentice idea. It means that even if the chain of handing-on is broken from person to person, someone can still retrieve an earlier “link” of the chain, from a written account.

On the other hand, it’s very easy to accidentally leave something out from a written account, or to describe something in such a way that it’s later misunderstood. So both methods have advantages, and perhaps ideally we’d always have elements of both.

BiCon-specific resources

In terms of “How to run a BiCon”, there’s a useful list of guides on Tip of the hat to everyone who’s put work into that documentation, and I’d like to encourage people to add to it. (One v cool thing to add, if anyone can be bothered, would be an “index by role” – so that someone taking on a particular role could go straight to the bits relevant to them.)

I’m pretty sure that there’s some older UK bi-activist history which is not well known by most people. As far as BiCon’s concerned, there’s hardly anyone still around from the earliest days, and even ten years ago I don’t think people always wrote post-event reports. (Or at least, if they did, then some of those haven’t made it onto the web.)

There’s also the biconorganisers group. That’s a great example of “people as a resource”, although it’s only a minority of all people who’ve ever worked on a BiCon.

Passing it on

One possible theoretical scenario is that someone’s already documented everything you need to know to do some particular role, and the latest person just copies that method, learns nothing and adds nothing. In that case, there’s nothing new to pass on.

But where someone does learn something from experience or develop something not done before, then ideally that would be transmitted. Otherwise it’s a bit like a software branch where a cool new feature gets developed but then the branch never gets merged back into the main trunk.

Most people could probably think of something they learnt while doing some task or craft, which if a friend said “Any tips?”, they’d immediately want to pass on. Blogs are full of that kind of conversation! And yet in many situations, by the time the new person’s asking the question, the person who could give the best tips from experience isn’t there to give their answers. (I’m thinking of e.g. DIY-ing in a new house, and you have to make a hole in the plasterwork just to see what kind of beam was put in.)

I imagine many people could also think of their own example of some innovation that’s only happened once so far, but would be just as useful/good (or better) on a subsequent outing.

Why do people reinvent the wheel?

I should acknowledge somewhere here that “reinventing the wheel” has more than one cause.

Sometimes it’s a pragmatic solution to re-start more-or-less from scratch, despite having some degree of access to the “previous wheel”. And sometimes people feel a compelling desire to be creative, and little or no desire to learn from what’s already known, in which case they’ll ignore the “previous wheel” on principle.

But sometimes it is some kind of break or weakness in the chain of passing-on.

Maybe someone doesn’t realise that the wheel has been invented before. Or they know (or assume vaguely) that it probably was – but they don’t have enough details to make the information of practical use.

Or sometimes, the information is all there – but written down in such a way that it would take hours to trawl through for the few nuggets of relevance, rather than offering a “This is what you‘ll want to know” in relatively accessible form.

Transmission skills and habits

Handing things on is partly a matter of skill – e.g. how good someone is at explaining, &/or how good someone else is at eliciting information. (I.m.e. the biconorganisers list shows its value most when someone asks a specific question of the group.)

It’s also a matter of attitude, habits and preferences.

Some people are much more prone than others to hang on to the job that they’re doing and not delegate and not tell anyone else what’s going on. Then, even after the event is all over, no-one else really knows how they did it. It’s a kind of “black box effect”. No-one else knows what went on inside the black box to produce the result!

And when a project’s over, some people enjoy writing up how it went and what they learned, whereas others (once they’ve had a rest) are much keener just to get on with the next thing.

Thinking ahead

Aside from those factors, there’s also a kind of possible thinking-ahead at the design stage to the constraints of future transmission, which may influence even what you choose to develop in the first place.

I’m thinking of my attempt to set down the format of the Fitting & Misfitting workshops for other people to use. Handing it over was much harder than I thought at first it might be. I ended up concluding that perhaps I needed to actually invent simpler things if I wanted them ever to be used later by other people.

Investment, payback, time and energy

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for glorious one-offs. Even ephemeral phenomena do lay foundations for the future if they nurture people. Food is an obvious example!

But I’m also interested in what you might call the payback-timescale spectrum. To what degree does our work have a longer life and longer value than the one event coming up next, and whatever people take away from that?

E.g. on the one hand I’m thinking of various one-off workshop sessions I’ve run at BiCon. I’m not saying they weren’t valuable at the time, and most likely there are still echoes of those experiences for some people into today.

On the other hand I’m thinking of the BiCon 2005 info booklet, another thing I worked on. That’s had a much more tangible afterlife (so far), in that other subsequent BiCons have reused parts of the text.

It reminds me a bit of planting a tree. You do the work once and the tree persists over time (well, if it’s a tree, it doesn’t just persist, it usually grows).

In the long run, everything is interim and we’re all dead. But some things hang around a lot more than other things.

Given that activism energy isn’t unlimited, I wonder if it might sometimes even be a luxury or a mistake to bother developing stuff which can’t be passed on, because the long-term payback is so much less.

Of course not every kind of work is amenable to becoming a metaphorical tree. Some is more like food or cleaning. But I feel protective of people’s energy – everyone’s, not just mine – and very averse to wasting it. So I don’t want to miss the opportunities to conserve and concentrate value, where they do exist.

Criteria for matching people to jobs

Returning briefly to Martin’s comment, and what I think about that now:

If there’s only one person who wants to do a job, and they don’t want to help anyone else learn it for the future, then so be it. It’s better to have that than to not have anyone who wants to do the job.

But if there’s a choice, then one valid criterion for “best person for the job” is what investment they’d be willing and able to make “as they go”, towards building for the long term. And helping to hand on a legacy of skills and memories is one aspect of that.

Team archivist

Writing this, it occurs to me that event teams might consider offering a role of “team archivist”. That person could take the lead on writing the event report, encourage other people to write up their experiences of different roles, and maybe even interview team members who didn’t like (or didn’t have time for) writing things up themselves.

I don’t mean like they should document everything – but even a short “What did you learn that you’d want to tell the next person?” could be incredibly useful sometimes.

That would be one simple way of “fixing” more of the recently-acquired value so that it doesn’t melt away again (like the ratchet metaphor).

It reminds me a bit of what Jen often does already in editing Bi Community News – “Any chance of a write-up?” (of an interesting-sounding event that someone’s going to or involved with.) It would differ in that BCN isn’t embedded within a particular team, and isn’t especially focused on eliciting the “how to do this specific cool &/or useful thing again” genre of information.

I don’t suppose that’s such a new idea that it’s never been done before, but I’ve not seen it made an official team role on any team I’ve been part of. Anyone done anything else similar? and if so, how did it work out?

Here, have an index…
Information as activist resource
The written word
BiCon-specific resources
Passing it on
Why do people reinvent the wheel?
Transmission skills and habits
Thinking ahead
Investment, payback, time and energy
Criteria for matching people to jobs
Team archivist

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