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Archive for December, 2009

The cover story of the most recent issue of Wired Magazine is dedicated to failure, and why failing can actually be a good thing. The prooftext (and cover model) is Alec Baldwin, whose career has been riddled with failures from which he learned and grew and so on.

But the accompanying story, “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” is much more impressive, even than Baldwin’s rise to 30 Rock. And it is impressive for the ways it “scientifically” discovers what we humanists have understood about intellectual growth and… well… learning for a long long time.

The essay tells the story of Kevin Dunbar, who conducted an ethnography of bioscience labs at Stanford University, only to reach

an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.)

For most humanists and social scientists, this phenomenon is anything but frustrating. This is what most of us call “discovery” or “learning.” It happens when what we expect to happen doesn’t happen. It’s what happens when what we think we know turns out not to be so. It is what happens when we proceed, methodologically, with real questions we want to understand as opposed to hypotheses we set out to prove.

Finding what you don’t expect to find is a success, not a failure. And perhaps some of the apparent “hard times” of the humanities are not “failures” at all, but the result of stilted and stunted ways of looking at the very processes of research, and not only focusing on the findings.

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The New York Times recently published an article on teenagers who have decided to reduce or eliminate the time they spend on Facebook in order to bolster their grades, their offline social lives, and their self-esteem (“To Deal With Obsession, Some Defriend Facebook,” December 21, 2009, A16).  I found the article especially interesting for the way it depicted teenagers and their relationship to technology.  The story reinforces one of our dominant, culturally constructed beliefs about adolescence: namely, the notion that technology poses a particular threat to teens because they lack the maturity and willpower to use it in a responsible, temperate manner.

First consider how technology is represented.  Throughout the article, Facebook is described as an addiction.  Words like “habit,” “obsession,” and “temptation” appear, as do phrases such as “like an eating disorder,” the “lure of the login,” and “time consuming but perhaps not all that fulfilling.”  One teenager mentioned by the piece even went on a “Facebook fast” for Lent.  Here, technology is depicted as a drug that can be especially dangerous and abused in the hands of teens.

Next consider the representation of adolescents.  The teenagers who have weaned themselves off of Facebook come across as having accomplished a remarkable victory.  They had to undergo a fierce struggle, one that required them to fight against their inherent adolescent traits and tendencies.  These exceptional teens exhibited “self-control,” “willpower,” and the ability to “delay gratification.”  The presumption here is that teens fundamentally lack these qualities… and they do not acquire them until they become adults.

Indeed, an unstated assumption of this New York Times story is that adults can use technology like Facebook more responsibly because adults have self-control.  However, many of my adult friends, myself included, are regular if not obsessive users of Facebook.  I even tried to “quit” Facebook back in April, posting a status update that read, “Leaving Facebook in 10 days.  I am both addicted and over it.”  In ten days I stopped looking at my account, but did not deactivate it.  Then two weeks later I was back on, and have basically logged in daily since then.  The teens profiled in this article are made of stronger stuff than I. 

One of the consequences of recirculating these assumptions about teens and technology in our mass news media is that it makes it easier for adults to claim the need to restrict or monitor teens’ use of technology.  The passing of laws targeting teens and technology comes to be seen as normal and even necessary for their safety.  For example, California recently passed a law prohibiting drivers under the age of 18 from using their cell phones; drivers over the age of 18, however, may use hands-free devices to talk on their phones.  Video games are assigned ratings (not by law, but by voluntary industry self-regulation) and people under the age of 18 cannot purchase certain games. 

I am interested in the larger questions raised by this story, questions about the role of technology in all of our lives, questions about the meaning of “maturity” and “immaturity” in our society, and questions about our cultural attitudes—and selective stigmas—regarding various “addictions” and “obsessions.”

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The UCD Sustainable Pen

There’s something troubling about this artifact.  What appears at first to be another of the hundreds of variations on “spirit pens,” this UC Davis implement is something else entirely.  It is actually a plastic pen–perhaps of the bic variety?–wrapped with a thin layer of cardboard onto which the UCD logo is affixed (and a note indicating that it is “recycled material” is added).  Topping off this creation is a popsicle-stick like clip that is attached directly to the plastic pen top and can, one assumes, enable the user to affix the pen to the interior of a pocket–a scenario in which only the popsicle stick would protrude.

I don’t believe the UC Davis gurus of promotional products mean this to be funny.  Jokes that pass plastics off as good for the environment products don’t tend to get a laugh these days.  It’s possible that this is a sign that our sales and marketing team is losing their edge–certainly this is not a great product on several levels.  Green washing has to go right alongside peeling cardboard, cracking popsicle sticks, and depleted ink on the list of “poor design qualities.”

Yet let’s imagine just for a moment that we might need to take this pen seriously as what it claims to be: a symbol of our university.  That’s when things get scary.

In the day of business plans and bottom lines, is it too much of a stretch to imagine that this pen symbolizes the precarious nature of knowledge itself in the modern research university?  With class sizes growing and the pressure to “make something” and “bring in funding” (even in the humanities) we may find ourselves teaching students who never get deeper than superficial concepts and producing work that looks neat but has little there there, ultimately.  Maybe we are becoming the professorial equivalent of cardboard plastic pens stating our “recycled material.”

and that is definitely not funny.

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For three years now I have not had a television.  I enjoy telling people this, as friends and family (as well as strangers I’ve met at parties) will readily testify.  Whenever they talk about some commercial or new show, I always say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I don’t watch TV.”  The pleasure I get from this disclosure comes in equal measure from witnessing their disbelief and from tingling with my own self-righteousness.  (As someone who teaches the history of popular culture, the fact that I don’t watch TV is ironic if not problematic, but that’s probably the subject of another post).  Recently, however, several of my close friends have begun to call me out on my smug pronouncement.

Them: “So you don’t have a television in your apartment?”
Me: “Well, I have a monitor that includes a built-in DVD player that I watch movies on.”
Them: “But it is technically a television set.”
Me: “Yes, technically, but I don’t have cable.”
Them: “Do you watch television shows on DVD?”
Me: “Well, sure.  I rent seasons of Arrested Development, Californication, Six Feet Under, and so on.”
Them: “Do you watch television shows on your computer?”
Me: “Well, once in a while I’ll watch clips of Jon Stewart online, or I’ll watch episodes of old TV shows on YouTube.”
Them: “So you watch TV shows online and on DVD?”
Me: “Yes.”
Them: “Then I hate to break it to you, but you still watch TV.”

Hence these friends of mine, these masters of logic and forensics, believe they have put me in my place.  And perhaps they have.  Two cultural questions emerge here.  First, what does it mean to “watch TV” today?  And second, what does it mean to say, “I don’t watch TV”?  American Studies practitioners (as well as psychologists) would probably be less interested in debating whether or not I technically “watch” television (technically I suppose I do), and more interested in analyzing why I feel the need to tell people, “I don’t watch TV.”  What does it mean that I say this?  What does it reveal about my sense of identity?  What does it say about how I perceive my relationship to modern technology, to mass culture, to social conventions?  Why is not watching TV an essential component to my vision of who I am—to my vision of self—living in the United States in the year 2009?

As an American Studies practitioner, I’ll try to answer my own questions.  Here are four possible ways to interpret my TV boast, though this list is by no means inclusive.  1) It is my way of asserting control over technology.  When I say, “I don’t have TV,” maybe what I really mean is, “TV does not have me.”  I mean that I can watch TV shows however and whenever I want, on my own terms—on DVD, or online, or not at all.  I am not yoked to the technology, not beholden to the medium.  I am master of it.  2) It is my way of signaling that I can control the flow of information into my domestic space (I also don’t have internet access at home).  I can limit the intrusion of the outside world into my private sphere.  3) It’s my way of pushing back against information overload in this new digital millennium.  I am making a return to simple living in a complex age.  4) It is a way to express my individuality, to present myself as a nonconformist, and—let’s be honest—to use culture and taste to make me feel superior to others.

I can already hear my friends saying, “So why don’t you just get cable and a DVR and watch specific shows whenever you want and shut up already?”  Fair enough.  But if I had cable, I’d probably watch TV all day long.  And then TV would definitely have me.

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