This week my publisher sent me a box of hardcover copies of my soon-to-be-released book.
As is my custom, I set aside one copy for each of my kids so that, years from now, they can hold this artifact in their hands - a direct connection to an age that is disappearing before our eyes.
Newspapers end their print editions, people download books into their phones, and magazines grow slimmer by the day. And yet information is now more readily and directly available than ever before.
But then look who's complaining: I just wrote a book that involved a ton of secondary-source research, and I haven't set foot in a library in years.
When I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1980s, I pretty much lived at Harvard's Widener Library, one of the premier research libraries in the world.
Instead, this time around, I vigorously crowdsourced a lot of my initial effort through my weblog, enlisting the free help of thousands of dedicated readers.
Since I know my readership includes intelligence analysts, strategic planners and national security practitioners from all over the world, I was simply tapping into the collective "wisdom of crowds" (on this, see James Surowiecki's brilliant book of the same title).
What is crowdsourcing?
[37 seconds later]
According to Wikipedia, it's a "neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, refine an algorithm or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data."
So I'm basically treating my blog readership as a giant research assistant.
An example: A while back Esquire magazine, where I'm a contributing editor, asked me to examine possible scenarios for new states joining our Union. I had ideas already in mind, but I also asked my readers to gin up a bunch of their own.
What I got in return was a sense of the plausible universe of possibilities, and I used that input to shape my article substantially.
I can ask them for such free intellectual labor because I routinely provide them free analysis of global events on my blog, so reciprocation is a key element here.
Back to my new book: As I discussed my initial approach in dozens of blog posts several months before figuratively putting pen to paper, I revealed both my ambitions and fears regarding the book's big ideas.
In turn, my readers took up the implied challenge, offering me thousands of references to other authors, books, reports, online resources, and the like, as well as critiquing my approach.
Did I then rush to my local library, armed with these recommendations?
No. I had my spouse go online and Google their ideas to death, amassing an even wider array of opinions - sort of <0x00FC>ber-crowdsourcing - before deciding which books I'd actually buy. And yes, at that point, being a child of the 20th century, I did actually purchase physical versions of the books - albeit through Amazon.
Now, you could say that I was being lazy, but I honestly put in as much effort on this book as I have on any previous one. I just covered a lot more ground in my research a whole lot faster, leveraging thousands of other smart people in the process.
So I guess I come away from this entire crowdsourcing experience feeling fairly optimistic about what it will mean to be an author in the years ahead.
No, it's no longer the lonely pursuit it once may have been, and fewer and fewer readers will bother to hold a physical version in their hands, but in terms of connecting to other minds, the future couldn't be brighter.