The dreaded ‘Second Half’

Posted: January 17, 2008 in Brainstorm, Discount Peer Response, List, meta, Usability

The paper on discount peer response went, in my opinion, very well. I’m quite proud of it. There are issues that still need to be addressed, and there will be revisions that still need to be made, but for the most part, it’s pretty solid. In terms of my thesis, that word has come down that I can use that paper as the first 50% of it. So I need another 20 pager to round things out; one that focuses on theory and not on teaching. It’s a good point; I do need to examine other things. As much as I want to spend my life teaching, I know that part of the game is theory and publishing, and if I want to get the teaching gigs I want, I need to play the game. Besides, theory is fun. So I have the other 50% to get done.

(actually, doing the math, the first paper is 45%, the second is 45%, and a brief introduction tying the two together will comprise the other 10%)

So I need to figure out what I want to do for the second half. Which means heading back to my list of research interests. For the purpose of this brainstorm, I’m going to go down the list and see what I have immediately to say about each of the items that jump out at me.

  • Development of Technology: I think that technology is fascinating, and I love following all the latest developments. I know how well nanotech research is going, I know about the laptop-sized supercomputers that could be on the market as early as a few years from now, and I know that a human life span extending into the multiple hundreds of years is not only possible, but that technology is getting so close that it seems to be almost inevitable. During my reading, I came up with a question about usability. It seems that through the history of technology, when something new is invented, it is, initially at least, as far from user-centered as possible. So it makes me wonder, is it necessary that new inventions not be user centered?
  • Predictive power of science fiction: Here is something else worth considering along the lines of usability. I’m reading a novel about quantum cryptology (among other things), which is making me really think about the predictive power of sci-fi. The number of things that Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Orson Wells, Isaac Asimov and others successfully predicted is incredible. Even junk sci-fi, like Star Trek (which, crappy as it is from the standpoint of ‘hard’ sci-fi, is still something I love) is starting to look surprisingly predictive (some scientists in Australia transported matter about 10 meters last spring). So, as far as crossing it with usability, I have to wonder about my previous point. Maybe technology has to not be user centered when it is conceived of (because it hasn’t been user tested yet), but science fiction can help provide at least a little bit of theoretical user-testing, allowing new technology to come into being far more user friendly than they used to be. Can Science Fiction actually serve a usability purpose?
  • Conflict between ‘popular’ fiction and ‘Literary’ fiction (as examined through usability): Wow, the ones I’m picking all seem connected… genre vs. Literature has always been a sore point of mine. In fact, it’s why I was never an English major, and part of why I immediately headed into composition/rhetoric when I started this program. I write fiction, but not Literature. I think that Literature is pretentious. But maybe my problem with it is that it has very little usability. Literature isn’t user centered. While there are the occasional examples of user-friendly literature (Hemingway and Chandler come to mind), for the most part, Literature is written to be complicated and complex (Joyce) so that people can read it again and again for years to come, struggling with the hidden meaning. If there were more user centering, that is, more care for the audience, maybe things would be more transparent, and Literature would lose its power. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is all about user centering. If the audience doesn’t like the book, they’ll put it down. If the copy on the back of the book isn’t interesting, the book doesn’t get bought. To survive in genre fiction, you have to please the user and build a returning fan base. So while there are two sides to the story and two sides to usability, maybe it would be interesting to apply the lens of usability to this issue.
  • Parallels (between programing/writing): This is the most obvious track to head down. It would result in a paper trying to prove (in only 20 pages) that programming IS writing, just in a different medium. That might not be possible. But it might be interesting to try to follow some of the lines of this argument. Maybe I could examine just one part of programming and try to prove that hypertext is a viable method of writing, that the internet, as a new media, is just writing without necessary linearity. I could point out the fact that the ideas of hypertext have been used in book form (I’m thinking about ‘Choose your own Adventure’ books that I read as a child), and maybe even examine other works that stretch the limit of linear storytelling in book form (Like House of Leaves) in order to show that the hypertext writings online are still writing, even if they are heavily programmed.
  • Parallels and links between Philosophy and English Studies: Well, this is one I’m interested in mostly because I’ve got degrees in both (well, I don’t have the English degree yet, but I’m pretty close). There have been a lot of places where studying rhetoric has been easier because of the philosophy I’ve read. Sometimes Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Saussure show up in English instead of Philosophy (where they belong!). I’m not really sure how to apply usability here, so maybe this isn’t something I should work on just now. But I’ve always been kicking around the idea of demonstrating the different turns that philosophy has taken (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, linguistics, etc) and demonstrate the parallels in literary theory, in an attempt to predict what the ‘next big thing’ in literary studies will be and what path we are heading down, in the hopes of easing all those fears that the field is fracturing.
  • Artificial Intelligence: When I first started thinking about the second half, this was the idea that rushed to the forefront. I love AI. I’d love to investigate it further, to look at the Turing Test and at Chatbots and all that. I think I can make a pretty good case for the importance of user-centering in AI development–in order for a program to pass the Turing Test, it has to convince human beings that it is intelligent and human itself, and doing that requires a lot of focus on who will be using the program during the test. I could examine all the paranoid fear about artificial intelligence (some of the most recent stuff is getting much more subtle) and talk about the problems that I have with some of the basic ideas of the Turing Test (why does something have to be human in order to be intelligent?). I’m just not sure how much gold I can really mine from this idea just now. Sure, there are things to consider, like the AIs that produce stories and music (which aren’t true AIs), or like the chatbots who replicate people from history (like Jack the Ripper or John Lennon), and then there’s the purpose of inventing an AI in the first place: a superintelligent program that has humanity’s best interests at heart… sounds like the ULTIMATE user centering. I can also apply some of the technology stuff to this (it’s pretty likely that there will be a computer smarter than any human being by the end of my lifetime, even if that lifetime is not extended).
  • New Media: This kind of stretches across a lot of what I’ve already said. But one of the things I’m most interested in with New Media is the ‘next step.’ The internet is great, and it’s changed a LOT since it’s inception. No doubt about that. Computers have changed since the dawn of time (1984). But still, there’s got to be something else coming. Science fiction seems to think that it’s more complete and powerful virtual reality. There is evidence to support this (like Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc). I want to start working on that NOW. A lot of the work for that will involve the past, of course–we tend to essentialize everything, and think that any new media is a threat to the way the world works, like how records were supposedly going to destroy the music industry– and it will be interesting to see how the Law of Unintended Consequences plays into all this (like how records made the music industry into what it is today).

So maybe there’s a lot for me to think about. Maybe a lot of these will combine with one another, overlap in a nice way that lets me work with them. I think the best thing to do right now is to give it a few days, do some more reading, and then come back to t

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