This piece, which was published in the July/August issue of Search Magazine, is about the relationship between academic linguists and SIL International, a language research organization with a Christian mission. I’ve encountered SIL as an organization and individuals with SIL affiliations quite a bit, and written about SIL linguists’ work (the Science piece I did in April is partly about SIL work in China), and always was intrigued by the theological underpinnings for their work — not in its connections to evangelism, necessarily, but a view of creation and history and the role of science — and how those underpinnings provided a more robust model for doing work with minority languages than anything that academic departments and universities had so far been able to come up.
Some have complained that religion and science are incompatible, and for most sciences I would agree. On the other hand, no science is ideologically pure in its motivations or ramifications, so any criticism of SIL as a Christian evangelical organization that doesn’t also critique other aspects of the endangered language agenda is showing its ideological bias.
This piece just appeared in Design Observer and was something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years, following some of the epiphanies that occurred after I was introduced to the notion of a gift economy in Lewis Hyde’s amazing book, The Gift. Basically, I came to understand that if I wanted to sell my book (then just a proposal), I should buy books, and if I wanted people to read my book, I should read books. That’s been my position since. I did sell the proposal and publish the book (that was Um…); there’s probably no connection, but that hasn’t kept me from believing that’s the case.
When Um… was about to come out, I also came across advice for self-publishers about marketing that was annoyingly confident in its assumption that consumers and potential readers won’t be doing anything good with their time until you come along with your book. You just have to assault their fortresses of ignorance higher and louder until they come around. The reality is that they’re living perfectly good lives without your stuff, so by what right do you impinge on their attention?
So my thinking started with a modest proposal: don’t allow anyone to sell a proposal or a book unless they buy and read a certain number of books, especially ones in the genre they want to write/sell. Immediately I got bogged down by potential counterarguments: what if you buy books but don’t read them? What if you’re too poor to buy the books but want to read? This leads to the thinking that it’s not about the commodity economy, by and large, it’s about attention: who we spend our attention on, and whose attention we gather. (I still like the notion of an attention tax for aspirants and newbies, which is also in the essay).