The Burning Question

Posted: September 9, 2008 in Brainstorm, Futurism, meta, Methods, writing

When I was in college, I came to the conclusion that the only way to really go through with a PhD was to have a burning question, something that kept me up at night, that demanded my constant consideration. I should say that by ‘came to this conclusion,’ I mostly mean that I was told this by people who I trusted, and it rang true to me.

Thankfully, at that time I had a burning question: Does personal identity depend on outside forces? This leads to questions about downloading the brain into a computer, about virtual persons, about cloning, and all the other great sci-fi geek questions. That question kept me going through my BA, and, though I wasn’t cut out for the Philosophy PhD program at the research university where I was at the time, the question still burned bright enough to get me an MA.

Yesterday, I was asked what my research question was. What do I want to research about? It was in class for Research Methods, so it makes total sense that I would be asked. I wrote something down, the first question that came to my head.

Last night, it kept me up.

The question I asked was, more or less, this: How do we develop a pedagogy to incorporate the Next Big Thing (NBT) in new media studies before that NBT shows up?

I know that one of the things I’ll be doing this semester is writing a research proposal, along with an annotated bibliography. That seemed intimidating for this particular question. I mean, how do you research ways to use something that doesn’t even exist yet?

Last night, I thought about it. It really connects to a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about on this blog already. One step would be to look at how new media was integrated into education in the past. When television became prolific, how was it used to help teach? What was the value of records when they were invented? How did the printing press help teaching and education? What about the internet? A lot of these have easy surface answers, and lots of material to mine through. A good, solid base to start from, historical in all the important ways.

The next step would be trying to make an educated guess. This could be done by looking at new technology that is just being made, but hasn’t become mainstream yet. Or it could look at new mainstream technology that has pedagogical uses. How do we use the iPhone to teach? But really, the best thing would be to guess at what’s coming.

Looking back, it makes total sense that technology developed the way it did. Writing leads to printing press. Makes sense. Once it’s printed, we try to find ways to disseminate it faster. So we get the telegraph, then the radio. Then we record audio (I may have the order wrong), then we start broadcasting sound and sight, and television is the natural step. And it makes perfect sense to move from TV to computer, and from comptuer to cell phone. But that’s looking back, and they say that Hindsight is 20-20. Still, these things follow trends. It IS possible to predict, with at least reasonable accuracy, what the future will hold. It’s been done for years, both by science fiction writers like Orwell, Asimov, Bear, and Benford and by futurists like Drexler or Kurzweil.

They’re not 100% accurate. But they do present ideas. And really, ideas is what I would need to do this work. That’s because of step three.

Step three is a synthesis, a development of method. Once I know how it has been done in the past, and have some ideas of what is coming in the future, I can examine those ideas as case studies and try to develop a way to handle new media. If I can come up with general guidelines of how to handle new things, then it won’t matter if the things I predicted came to be or not. The things I didn’t predict, the things I couldn’t predict, may still work with the methods I’ve suggested.

I’ve been talking about what interests me. There’s the cutting edge, the newest of the new. Then there’s the bleeding edge, just beyond that: the things on the horizon, things that are still theoretical right now but that may end up as technology very soon. I’m more interested in what goes beyond that. I don’t have a name for it (over the edge?), because much of it is guesswork. But at least it’s progressive.

Who knows if this question will maintain. Some questions burn bright and then burn out. Others simmer. Still others burn like a sun: hot, bright, and very, very long. If this question is the first type, then I have a focus for the semester. If it’s the second, I have a tangent to go on during my dissertation. If it’s the third, then I may have a career plan.

My gut instinct is that it’s door number three. I’ve always been interested in the future, and in what technology can bring us. But I’ve been wrong before.

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