Cory Doctorow and the Memex Method

Cory Doctorow has been blogging for 20 years. In this marvellous post he reflects on how the process has helped his writing and thinking. A blog can be a commonplace book, an ‘annotated web history,’ nucleation, and a memex or brain-extension.

I’m sixteen years a blogger. Back when I started, meta-blogging (i.e. blogging about blogging) was a big chunk of the discourse, with everyone trying to justify their hobby to themselves, to other bloggers and, perhaps most importantly, to the naysayers who mocked us as freaks in pyjamas bashing away at our keyboards.

As Dan Hon says, pretty much every line of Cory’s post is quotable. The ‘memex’ conception is particularly true for me. My career trajectory was changed in 2007 when I was shortlisted for the Ben Pimlott Prize for an essay I wrote on Britishness. It’s a strange thing and I’m not sure whether I would write it now (or whether I would even be able to write something like that now). But it was written in a sort of fever-dream one night near to the deadline for entries, and I was able to do it only because the ideas and arguments had already been drawn from dozens of other writers and had coalesced within me during the process of blogging.

I didn’t win the prize (Roland Manthorpe, the Sky News Technology correspondent, took home the trophy) but I did meet Sunder Katwala and Jean Seaton, and began thinking about working in activism and politics. I’m certain that my blogging gave me an edge in job interviews for the Social Market Foundation and English PEN.

In the past few years the focus of the blog has narrowed, and is mainly (though not exclusively) about freedom of expression. Cory is so right about the mnemonic quality of blogging: in debates and in the occasional broadcast appearance, I am able to reel off rhetoric and sound bites with surprising ease. But none of it is extemporised. It’s all a repetition of ideas iterated on the blog.

Back in the late noughties, I posted several times a week. Recently it’s been about once a month. I am supposed to be studying and I find that they are two very different mental modes. I tend to draft and re-draft my posts before clicking the ‘publish button’ and so choosing to write a blog is to choose to forfeit a significant chunk of study. Over the past year-and-a-half in particular, I have had to suppress the urge to open a ‘compose blog’ window and focus on the textbooks. I have therefore failed to comment on countless historical moments. My anger and delight and amazement and relief has gone unrecorded. Did it even happen at all?

But I abide, and so does the blog. The Tale of Two September 11s remains true and relevant. And I’m sure that in the months and years to come my writing here will be revitalised by some new interest or career twist. The story continues.

The photo is by Dougal Wallace, of an event I chaired with Cory Doctorow and China Mieville, hosted by the Clerkenwell Tales bookshop. You can read a report of the event on Pornokitsch, but one note I made at the time was China Mieville’s worry that blogging would mean that we never have an unpublished thought! A few years back I dug out the recording of the event and posted it.

I was due to interview Cory at the London Bookfair in 2010, the year of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption that grounded international air travel. Cory could not make it, so instead I hastily wrote and performed a poem, Cory Doctorow is Not Here Today, about the absence of authors. I’ve just re-read it and note that Zarganar was in prison then, was subsequently released, and is now back in prison.

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