Prestigious Dan Olner fellowship

I’m thrilled to announce I have been awarded a prestigious Dan Olner fellowship… i.e. after six years in my current post and ten years postdocing in total, my academic contract finished and I am now living off my savings. This is, I am telling myself slightly unconvincingly, a good thing.

Here’s the rough plan for the, err, fellowship. I’m giving myself a year maximum to re-orient my work, with a few months not worrying about where the next paycheque comes from (an extreme luxury, I know). This process can be as fantastical as I like to begin with before it has to land itself back in reality. A gentle landing would be good.

There may be time in the future for a more traditional quit-lit academic postmortem, though I’m not sure I could add much to what so many others have already said (e.g. Lisa Munro). We know that story backwards now, don’t we? (Plus, it’s quite possible I end up back in the academy again within the year.) No, for the time being I want to look forward.

So, what does the year ahead hold? I’ll save discussion of specific ideas for later posts – keeping schtum about nascent ideas is the best way to maximise their survival chances. But here are the broad brush strokes (including my current exciting news – I wrote a scifi book).

Five main things: seeing if there’s a way to work on some small part of the zero carbon transition; prototyping ideas to see what works; taking my writing seriously; continuing to practice my data science / programming skills; working out how to present myself and communicate. Going through each of those –>

One: is there a way I can contribute in some small way to fighting climate change? My internal arguments about this need their own post. One part of me says: “you might as well try to stop an oil tanker with a feather duster; just live your life.” Not an uncommon reaction to the scale of the issue. But the best remedy is always the same: find like-minded people and collaborate. That’s where hope comes from. Yes, my efforts up to now have been patchy as hell – but that’s true of us all. While many good things are happening, collectively, we’re failing. That’s not a reason to stop trying. In fact, until we start succeeding, there’s no limit to how badly we can fuck the biosphere. Fossil fuel companies and their hangers-on will gaslight us (pun intended) all the way to climate ruin if we don’t fight.

There are so many ways to contribute – I have ideas, but it’s unclear what might be most practical or useful. It’s also quite possible I’ll end up working on something non-climate related; I’m pushing in this direction but keeping an open mind. Hence –>

Two: prototyping. I’m worryingly partial to terribly un-British whoop-whoop self help books, and a current favourite is Burnett & Evans’ Designing Your Life. It goes nicely with the grain of my Jane-Jacobsy notions of how progress happens – the whole “accident fuelled by intention” thing. Almost no-one ends up where they imagined they would; intention interacts with reality and evolves in the process. This matches Burnett & Evans’ “bias to action” – don’t just theorise. Actually try things. Test if they work and if they match what your expectations of them were. Small steps. Talk to people. Their descriptions of so many doing the opposite (trying to formulate perfect plans) is heartening: it’s not just me who’s that dumb, it’s quite normal.

This is all an antidote to the “setting yourself up to fail” problem. I do that all the time – Walter Mitty level ideas like “build an online version of MONIAC to show why austerity is so stupid” (that’s what I was getting at here and here). It’s easy to imagine what a more prototype-y approach to that would be, starting with conversations. And if something doesn’t work, that’s fine. Learn, fail, move on.

This is super-true for “SOLVE CLIMATE CHANGE” as a monolithic aim. There are much smaller problems to wrangle along the way that must be tackled collaboratively. Doubtless this stumbling, adaptive progress won’t be fast enough, but it’s the best we can do, and it’s infinitely better than throwing our hands in the air and giving up. (Note: I’ve got a visiting researcher position at Sheffield University to work on this – can’t bring myself to let go of the academy entirely.)

More mundanely, this way of thinking is pushing me to do things that have immediate effect. It’s worth having something like this in your life – seeing one’s actions have direct impact is such a contrast to the blurry nothingness so much modern work seems to consist of. Something simple: working with others locally to pick litter and generally look after where I live. Highly recommend. (There was a nice bit of geocoding to be done exploring the area in search of bedded-in grotspots…)

Three: writing. This should probably be #1. Writing is essential, it’s the lifeblood of thinking and action and conversations. Something’s clogged up my writing veins in recent years and academia is involved somehow – but again, the cure is writing, not postmortems. I hope my techie / data science / geo / programming chops play a role in my future, but writing sits under that as a foundation.

I’ve got a bucket of writing ideas – but I want to learn to value my own writing more. I’d like that to include non-blog publishing (i.e. believing in myself enough to think others would want to read, and caring enough to work on structure, pace, argument, persuasion). In-keeping with the prototyping theme – shorter pieces, not (initially) anything like a book.

And then there’s the sci-fi book. It’s changed my attitude to work in general in ways I’m still figuring out. I talk about that more here in a profile by Sheffield’s Writers’ Workshop (I’m a member) – including my academic angst about ‘coming out’ as a fiction writer.

The book’s been through one round of agent rejections and I’m waiting on the second. I’m properly proud of it, and test readers I trust tell me it’s a good yarn – but I doubt it’s quite commercial enough for trad publishing, so I’ll probably be self-publishing in late Autumn. Current title: “The Ink That Draws the Maps” (good to get some geography in there).

Of course, I have this voice in my head: “Look at you wiffling about the existential threat of climate change while also wasting time on buffoonery like sci-fi”. In an entirely self-serving way, I think that’s wrong, for a couple of reasons.

First, fiction can be an ideal way to attack ideas. Good sci-fi does this superbly. I first discovered one of my all-time favourite books in an amazing Sheffield Uni politics undergrad module ,”The Post-Industrial Utopians”, run by Mike Kenny. We got to read several works of fiction alongside sociological theory, including Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The subtlety and humanity she brings to her portrayal of an anarchist society under internal and external threat brings me back for regular re-reads. I could never hope to emulate Le Guin’s incredible depth, but her fluidity and lack of dogmatism inspired me when trying to imagine how AI and existing social structures might co-evolve. There’ll be non-fiction to write about all that. (Cf. Zeynep Tufekci: “too many worry about what AI – as if some independent entity – will do to us. Too few people worry what *power* will do *with* AI.” That said, the book does also have an evil robot…)

Second – imagination as a compass for navigating the future. Writing the sci-fi book tuned me to think this way, and I’ve been seeing this idea in different places since. A tweet from James Plunkett led me to Roberto Unger (PDF) and this quote:

The point is… to raise up our humanity. Imagination and hope will be our twin guides.

Brilliant! In the last week, I discovered Geoff Mulgan’s “Another World is Possible” – an entire book about “reigniting social and political imagination”. I’ve only just started on it but loved this from the first chapter:

We can imagine almost anything, but only a tiny fraction of what we imagine can become real. There is no easy way to verify how much change is possible. Hard-nosed realists may be right much of the time, but then, periodically, they become dramatically wrong. Wild-eyed visionaries may be wrong much of the time, but occasionally they become dramatically right. Only in retrospect is it possible to judge which ideas were crazy and which were wise, and it is only through working on the world, pushing, prodding and testing its plasticity, that we begin to discover which other worlds are possible.

He promises to examine how high-flying imagination can connect to building actual social and economic plumbing – I’m looking forward to reading. (p.s. got to this via Mulgan’s guest appearance on the Oh God What Now podcast.)

Four: data science / programming / visualisation / geo-stuff / general geekery. This also arguably should be #1! Whether in something climate related or working on other issues, I hope I can put these skills to good use (some of the previous ways I’ve used them are covered on the about page). I also want to be thinking about the role data science is playing as we try to get to a non-madmax second half of the century, what I’m tentatively labelling “political economy of quants” (not “using quants to study political economy”).

All this feeds into –>

Five: how to present myself and communicate. Bleeeurgh. This fits squarely into “prototyping required”. I don’t know if the stuff I plan to work on will all sit happily under one roof. Some of it won’t – if I end up, for example, doing freelance stats / data science, a minority of clients will be keen to read posts about political imagination (I assume).

But perhaps more of it will play happily together than I fear. This tilt towards imagination will likely infuse anything more academic-leaning or even data-sciencey that I produce. It’s the done thing as a writer these days (fiction or otherwise) to have a newsletter (the newsletter now being what blogs used to be) so I may do that. I want to be imagining how different social and economic systems could be, what a climate-stable system might look like. I want to be talking to people imagining similar things. I also want to think about how, specifically, the Sheffield region can get itself to zero carbon, getting into the plumbing of that, the tech of it, the political economy.

So, what next? For the first few weeks post-contract, I went full Odo’s bucket and returned to my “natural, gelatinous state to regenerate” in a tub. As I start to take solid physical form again, I’m imposing some structure on my days, making actual plans. First: pick some small, manageable writing projects and one little coding / data project. Second: pester people.

The Sheffield Writers’ Workshop are hosting a summer of submissions: I’ll be piggybacking on that to get some things out into the world. As they say, rejection is good for the soul.

OK, let’s get started on the, um, fellowship.