Writing A Research Narrative

Writing A Research Narrative

Susan L. Gerhart, July 2016

Like many retired professionals, I gravitated toward creative writing classes. My teachers are published educators, actors, and preachers plus a Great Courses lecturer. They’ve shown me their processes, techniques, and ways to develop my imagination. A premise surfaced from my nonfiction concerns about privacy, surveillance, and social media, with a natural title: “A Chip On Her Shoulder”. The writing process made sense.

Writing instructors emphasize “read widely and critically”. My reading expanded into speculative fiction and nonfiction history of computing. I found many cyber-thrillers, only a few tales exploiting the panorama of computers and the Internet, but growing use of social media as plot factors. My premise had promise.

Other advice is obvious. A first novel must draw heavily on the novelist’s life experience for details and descriptions and characters. Ok, I thought, I’ll inventory my career to enliven the premise, cast shadows over the social media terrain, and redeem the world with some forgotten glorious technology.

Soon I had a jumble of ideas for the novel mixed with my memories and with historical events. My out-dated research resume didn’t explain why I undertook projects nor why I gave up on or switched topics. Better documentation should extract facts from goals, accidents from essences, fiction-worthy elements from fictitious claims.

“Research autobiography” seemed too detailed and fact-oriented. “Memoir” suggested more reminiscence and less action. The better literary form seemed to be a “narrative” of career phases and events. I wanted to tell a “story” that would hold the interest of readers to cross the panorama of five decades with me. So, I chose to distill resume details to key publications that held intriguing questions, then and now. Good questions lead into curiosity, competition, settled answers, rejected proposals, Moore’s Law, funding cycles, job hops, controversies, and forgotten ideas. Questions pumped spirit back into my resume.

A draft following five decades flowed out over a five day writing period in 2013. Then I realized I’d shifted to a different form of thinking. This transformation took shape when The 2014 ACM Communications “Tears of Donald Knuth” episode calls attention to paucity and aridity of writing about computing history. I realized that we who thought of ourselves as researchers should be leaving the “insider” traces for trained historians and philosophers to carry forward the spirit of our recollections. Who else would know the heroes and villains, the excitement and losses, the interactions of fields traversing the arc of exponentially growing role of computers in society.

Writing about myself from a distance forced me to read up on external events that drove my life: Sputnik; Reagan’s SDI; the Japanese Fifth Generation; post 9-11 Total Information Awareness; and power-driven Googlearchy. Most of my jobs ended in dissolution, but that’s another story relegated to institutional narratives.

Imposter syndrome grabbed me. We not of the Turing Award level feel left out, unworthy of writing our own narratives, not sensing any audience of interested readers. We’re not Ada Lovelace nor Alan Turing nor Steve Jobs, are we? We were linkers and tinkerers, driven by conferences and grants, cogs in the research-industrial-complex, probably only footnote for a historian or sociologist? But, if we don’t write up our selves on our own terms, we won’t even be noticeable in a chain of references lost to search engines biased against work before the Dawn of Web Time and outside the Kingdoms of Silicon Valley.

Then there’s the drumbeat of progress, innovation, and disruption that consumes “news”. — Sometimes we have to retrace our career trajectories to answer the all-important question: how did we get into this mess?

Consider autonomous Vehicles, notably Tesla’s “May 2016 Autopilot” accident. Three decades of Peter Neumann’s “Risks Digest” warned us: beware terms like “autopilots”; respect certification frameworks and the complexity of cyberphysical systems; recall “normalization of deviance” from the Challenger accident; don’t mistake YouTube videos of now dead human beta testers for real validation.

Privacy is another modern mess. My novel’s theme is our Faustian bargain with social media that reduces us to ‘data formerly known as people’. As the web grew, computing fields adopted a seemingly benign economic model of “free”, leading us into surveillance capitalism, social media monopolies, and attention deficits. Could we have taught that orphaned subject of privacy in our detail-packed courses to students with little life experience? Mea culpa, I never thought of writing a privacy policy in my software engineering and database classes.

So, here’s my plea to other researchers: write a narrative style piece, then leave it where it will be found, perhaps by a search engine or methodical historian. Let our footnotes drive the writing of history.

What about the literary style of a Research Narrative? I chose to write remote third person to look at myself and my work objectively. That killed some reminiscences, anecdotes, and prognostications in order to streamline the story. But, ha, that’s where the fiction arises, as my characters live different trajectories, asking and answering different career questions

Computer science has many masters of literary writing and speechifying. Telling the story of our research is usually saved for our retirement recognition events, if we’re lucky enough to get one. We can blog our thinking along the way, following the eminent EWD (Edsger W. Dijkstra) memo style. Or, we can trace topics, as in Van Emden’s “A Programmer’s Place”, or categorize like Capers Jones’ software engineering history, , or entertain with Youtube last lectures, or compile wisdom such as Grady Booch’s IEEE Software “On Computing” column and podcast.

One nasty socio-technical problem is linking from the research narrative to artifact locations that will survive coming changes in terminology, website re-organizations, pay walled publication models (ACM, IEEE) and ephemeral research organizers (Microsoft Academic, Google Scholar, CiteSeer, DBLP, ResearchGate…). And then there’s the coming digital darkness of long-gone media tools, such as LaTex, Scribe, PostSript, HTML variants, assuming the storage devices endure.

How sad it would be if our research narratives were hidden by rotted links, or overwhelmed by archival publications, or bypassed when technical terminology changes, or ignored by historians who don’t grasp our messages. Possibly, the WWW could collapse (one of my novel’s scenarios), or name-your-apocalypse. Where should we leave our research narratives.

Anyway. here’s mine and I’d love to read yours!

Susan Gerhart’s Research Narrative