Breaking ranks

As the amount of reading I do on a daily basis has increased I’ve found some really good writers writing on really important and interesting topics. One of these people is Mandy Brown — she’s a veteran of the publishing interesting and has her hand in many pies including Typekit, A List Apart and A Book Apart. She has a very insightful (and thoughtfully curated) blog entitled A Working Library where she writes about libraries, reading, writing and how they interact with each other and society. Her latest post is about how the way we read our news is “breaking ranks” with the way it gets produced and distributed.

I don’t consider myself much of a news junkie (though a lot of the current tech articles and blogs I read daily could be considered news). I don’t have very strong opinions about the way the news conglomerates are trying to adapt nowadays (though paywalls do leave a bad taste in the mouth). However, I do agree with how Mandy identified the current situation as “breaking ranks” and why that’s really important. I believe that the most important things happen when this sort of rank-breaking takes place — when an idea or product starts moving in a direction that takes it away from what we consider its natural surroundings.

Case in point is the iPad (which I’m still agonizing over buying, by the way). I see the iPad as indicative of the way people use information breaking ranks with the way people use computers. The form factor, the app store, the interaction model everything is sharply different from what came before it and yet is more in-tune with what’s important — letting people use and interact with data and information without technology getting in the way. It’s unconventional, slightly alien and a fair number of people wish it would just go away.

Even on a personal level, progress is made when ranks get broken. Lately the way I need to work in order to get stuff done has come into conflict with the general environment I want to work in. I want to work in the sunny, spacious and generally aesthetically pleasing college library. But the library is generally filled with people and as a programmer and writer I work best in solitude so that I can concentrate without distractions. The way I want to work is breaking ranks with the way I need to work. The solution in this case is to go to the library in the morning — when it’s sunniest and yet there are few people. I can find a nice quiet spot and get work done. I carry my Chrome Netbook with Ubuntu to do my writing and some light hacking (more on that in a later post). In the afternoons and evenings I retreat to my room for music without headphones and my desk Linux machine to get to more heavy duty hacking. It’s been working out pretty well so far.

Progress and improvement, whether it’s personal or large-scale social and technical, is a combination of both slow, gradual improvements and larger quantum leaps. When situations get to breaking points small tweaks and improvements won’t do. You can’t drag print media to the Internet by just digitizing content. You can’t get a sizable increase in your productivity if you stick to your old habits and routines. When the breaking of ranks starts, you have to take equally ambitious measures to ensure that the breaking is for the better and that what comes out of the process is more than what went in.

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