This is not what I intended to write
Ideas finding formats
I hadn’t intended for this to be my next post. It’s a replacement piece, a substitute. I’d been working on a thing about algorithms for a little while, I was planning to post that. But that piece got reclassified. I started to think that what I was doing had a bit more scope and might be worth holding back and working on a bit more. So it’s shifted from being a blog post, moving categories on the writing plan to become a potential journal article. As a result, I’m left with a blank space to fill.
The shift in that planned piece got me thinking about the relation between formats and ideas. The idea I was working with was getting a bit too big for the format I’d allocated it to. The lack of fit wasn’t really about word lengths, it was more to do with the space that was opening up for me to explore. Posts on this newsletter, which I treat as being like blog posts, are usually fairly short and I try to use them for things that wouldn’t really work in more formal or longer formats. There wasn't the space to work the idea through.
One reason blogging is useful is that it draws out ideas. The format is really an ideas space calling to be filled. Sometimes ideas are trigged by trying to write a blog and then become something else. I’ve recently ended up turning a previous post on here into a journal article (on the recursive society) that will be out soon (I’ll post about it when its out). That particular idea found a format on here as a brief introduction to the thought I’d had and, partly because it got a bit of a reception and partly because there was more left to be done with it, I thought it worth pursuing a bit further. So I kept working on it after the original post and built it up from the initial few hundred word post into something a few thousand words long. In that case the change happened after the initial version was complete.
With the post I was working on that I've held back, it’s going to need quite a bit of background work to develop it into something else. The main change that is needed requires switching it from being a suggestive piece about what might be done to something that tries to fill-out that sketch with some detail and some tangible options.
Partly this is about the legs that an idea has. Some ideas just work better if kept to less than a thousand or so words, others can keep developing into more, if given attention. I’m trying to work out how to spot the difference. Ideas adapt to the format, but also some ideas demand a format to suit their needs. With that post about algorithms, it just felt like there was more to be said once I'd got the draft together. Maybe it had some space to run. So that was the reason for pulling it from this format to try to find a new way of dealing with it.
There have been other times in the past when I've found that the format I thought would work turns out to not actually be the right choice. My book Metric Power started out as a 10 minute presentation that was to become an article. As I worked on the article it kept getting longer, turning into a short book and then a longer book. Breaching the boundaries, the ideas found the format. I didn't want to stick to a shorter or more limiting format that would curtail the idea.
There are other times though when the format is needed to contain an idea and give it shape. When an idea has to fit in 8000 words it has to be moulded to those edges and to the other exepectations of the format. Sometimes an idea needs a space to spread outwards into and fill. But the format also gives it form.
I’ve ended up thinking of this in similar terms to Georg Simmel’s accounts of the relations between life and form. For Simmel, the pulsating openness of life takes form in social ordering and through its containment in the limits of cultural rules and social relations - yet it often keeps pushing at those boundaries. In this equation ideas are a bit like life and the format is like form. Ideas need formats to give them shape, but there is a tension if the format restricts those ideas. Much like the tension between social adaptation and individuality that Simmel often returned to in his writings.
Ideas and formats probably should be understood together. The format both facilitates and contains the idea. For an idea to be nurtured it needs to fit the particular confines of the format, whilst the format also needs to give the idea the room it needs. A difficult balance.
In this case, changing the format to try to find a more fitting format led me to end up writing this stop-gap post - a piece of writing without much form perhaps - something I didn’t intend to write. If the journal article version of the original post doesn’t work out, it might yet get recategorised again and posted here. It might be that a different format will be needed to give it enough room to expand whilst still providing it with some shape.