In October 2020—I can see the date in the app—I downloaded a book, Transitions by William Bridges. The moment did feel like one of transition. The country was staggering from a long COVID summer and the protests after the death of George Floyd, and was about to face another difficult transition during the November election. In New York City, we were in a brief moment of reopening that would end with the onset of a long COVID winter. In my own life, I was sweating to complete my dissertation and graduate from my PhD program.
Transitions, first published in 1980, is intended to be read by those undergoing a psychological transformation of some kind, whether dealing with loss and grief, moving to another life stage, or shifting jobs or roles. The book makes a distinction between change, which is circumstantial, and transition, which is a sort of realignment of self. Bridges was, apparently, an ex-literature professor who had taken a strong interest in psychology, and whose interest in major life transition arose after he was left devastated by the death of his wife.
Perhaps it's just me, but it seems that everyone I know, including me, is undergoing a major life transition. A number are emerging from long illnesses. No fewer than four of my close friends have babies due in the coming months. Another friend has reached a new milestone in an ongoing transition, and has changed pronouns. Former students are starting graduate programs. So many people are switching jobs that the phenomenon has a name—the Great Resignation. Both the City University of New York and Columbia University, places to which I have close ties, are starting in-person classes in earnest. This month, this moment, does feel like one in transition.
At the same time, true transitions are a little hard to come by these days. Transitions has a chapter on apprenticeship, and one passage resonated with me:
[T]he transitions toward the end of your career are weighted down with the freight of what, in our society, we call “retirement.” It is almost as though you were starting to “retire” a little at a time as the endings that initiate each of the late-career transitions in your work life cause you to let go of bits and pieces of the person you have been up to that point. Without formal transition machinery, such as the old rites of passage, we not only lack the support that traditional people enjoyed but also the powerful concentration that the old rituals provided—a power that took an extended and diffuse time of transformation and converted it into an event.
While we're all in transition, it also feels as if many of our transitions must be made without the benefit of true endings. Schools are reopening, which might suggest the end of the pandemic—and yet we track the emergence of new variants. After many years, we graduate with degrees—and yet, in many cases, we do not fully benefit from the rituals and ceremonies of graduation. We change jobs—and yet many of us do similar work from the same home office. This all comes along with the usual lack of transition that comes with modern life, what Bridges calls formal transition machinery.
This first post on a new mailing list, of course, represents a moment of transition. After nine years, I have my PhD in hand. In October, I will be getting married. Today, I have started a new postdoctorate in humanities entrepreneurship, something I hope to write a lot more about in future posts. And I'm starting a business, Iota School, dedicated to accessible technical training.
On this mailing list, I'll be trying to draw out a vision, something I believe in strongly and a thread that I've begun to pull on in my other work. The vision is about technology, but not as we usually think of it. Not high technology, but technology of the low, of people and the stuff we need to build to live in a world that's eating itself from the inside. I'll talk about hacks and hacking, about Python and Lisp, about teaching, about organizing people, about building (or failing to build) a business, about science fiction, about writing code and making things. For convenience, and because the word "technology" carries so much baggage, I'll call this vision, and this mailing list, techne.
But all of that is next week. Today is a day of unfinished endings. On Monday and Tuesday, I ran an event at Columbia for 120 learners, and I still haven't cleaned my desk of all the coffee cups. I have a still-packed backpack full of stuff from my desk in Butler Library, tabs open filled with data that I'll probably never look at again, and a head filled in equal parts with the day-to-day of a program I helped start and hopes for a year that has only begun beginning. Anyone got a ritual for that?
Thanks for being one of the first people to sign up for the Techne newsletter. If you're just here to learn Python…well, there will probably be plenty of that, so hang in there! Early next week, I'll share a post on Iota School and what that will look like. At any time, you can reply to this email or write to me directly at email@example.com. If you might, keep an eye on your spam folder and rescue my emails if they go in there. That will do a lot to help me get this mailing list going.
According to my reading app, I only got 44% of the way into Transition, which seems oddly appropriate. If you think it might help you with your own transformations, you can find it at your local library.
I look forward to sharing this journey with you.