Riki Kuklick, contemplative computing, and the challenge of real life

A few weeks ago I spoke a memorial service for one of my thesis advisors, Riki Kuklick. While I was at Penn I also gave a couple other talks, on postacademic careers and contemplative computing; but all three turned out, one way or another, to touch on Riki and her influence on me.

After I returned home, I noodled around with the talks, and eventually put them together. The result wouldn’t have been appropriate in any of the three venues, but it better reflects what I was struggling to say in separate places on different days.


In September 2013 I returned to Philadelphia to speak at a memorial service for one of my favorite professors, Henrika Kuklick. Exactly thirty Septembers earlier, I stepped into my first classroom with Riki, and her course on the sociology of knowledge. It was the beginning of an association that would shape the next eight years of my life at Penn, and beyond.

Even though my father was a professor, and I was lucky to have some great teachers and role models at Penn, Riki lived the life of the mind in a way that was especially vivid and accessible. It goes without saying that she was as brilliant as the other professors who most deeply influenced me at Penn– her colleagues Rob Kohler and Thomas Hughes; art historian David Brownlee; and strategist and systems thinker Russ Ackoff– but she was a great model for aspiring scholars.

Riki took unreserved, transparent pleasure in the craft of scholarship, in writing, teaching, talking shop with students. Her stories of her latest agony writing what she called “the Great American monograph” kept me and other graduate students entertained.

For students trying to become scholars, her willingness to pull back the curtain on academic life was refreshing and reassuring. My decision to work on Victorian science was influenced in no small part by her accounts of living in England and working in the archives there.

The Problem of the Real World

The importance of academic models like Riki for aspiring scholars shouldn’t be overestimated, because academic life is often looked at skeptically by people who see themselves as firmly rooted in the “real world.”

As my years at Penn drew out, some of my old friends and relatives expressed the opinion that all this education was just a way of avoid going into the real world. The real world was the place where people DID things, made money, got stuff done. The university was fine if it helped you get a job, but otherwise it was little point to it. Well, if the university was NOT the real world, then I wanted no part of it. I wanted to be a professor; the campus would be MY real world.

That didn’t work out: I graduated into a terrible job market, and after finishing my first book and a couple postdocs became a consultant. But then I made a surprising discovery: the “real world” was actually a great place to pursue the life of the mind.

Working as a futurist means grappling constantly with epistemological issues around the possibility of predicting the future, your professional credibility, and the standards by which your work should be judged– all familiar themes in the sociology of science. In the mid-1990s, thanks to the growth of the Internet, the rising importance of the service economy, the ferocious pace of technological and global change, and other factors, the boundary between the world of ideas and the “real world” was collapsing. In order to survive in today’s economy, organizations have to think seriously about what they were doing and why, and have models that explained how the world works and how it’s changing. In their worldly impact, ideas are more real than ever.

One reason I was able to continue my own intellectual life was that I had Riki’s pursuit of it as a model. There was nothing unreal about the life of the mind the way she lived it, or her love of the craft of scholarship. Her own professional life was lived in the ivory tower, she would have regarded the prospect of working with C-suite executives with horror. Despite this, she gave me the means to see the life of the mind as a devotion rather than just a profession, as an internal discipline as well as an academic one.

In a sense, I was also applying to my own life another lesson Riki taught me: that we should question what others believe is inevitable and inescapable, because what appears fixed may in fact be contingent and changeable. The expertise that may seem unassailable, the assumptions that seem self-evident, the truths that claim to be eternal, all may not be as real as they seem– or like a great movie, their greatness may a blend of hard word, clever staging, and a willing suspension of disbelief.

Seeing that the boundaries between the academic world and “real world” could be more porous than I’d believed helped me create a life that borrowed from both worlds. It let me uproot my own well-cultivated prejudice against corporate life. It freed me to reimagine academic life as something more portable and useful than I’d previously imagined. It let me see that one could make a life that combined the vita activa and vita contemplativa.

Another Real World: IRL

That experience of moving between worlds had a subtle but important resonance in my latest book. While writing The Distraction Addiction, I ran up against the sensibility that Facebook, text messaging, the Web, and the other things that make up the digital world can ONLY be distractions from a well-lived life; that proximate physical interactions are naturally superior to anything we can experience online; and that the best solution to our electronic troubles is simply to turn technologies off. We should get offline in order to spend more time in the real world, where we can have a real life. The simple and apparently innocuous acronym “IRL” turns out to be a kind of intellectual virus. It packs a lot of unexpected information and moral judgment in a very small package.

This claim is one side of an argument that’s into its third decade. In the 1990s and the early days of the World Wide Web, figures like John Perry Barlow and Esther Dyson declared that cyberspace was a new world separate from and superior to the physical world; critics answered that the Internet was a threat to literature, social development, even our memory and cognitive abilities. To me this debate had a ring of familiarity. If the distinction between the academic world and real world doesn’t make a lot of sense, I wondered, could the same be true of the apparently huge gap between digital life and real life?

Merging Worlds

Once I dug deeper, I saw that just as the distance between academic life and real life was overhyped, so too was the distance between digital life and real life. Technologies like smartphones, locative services, and wireless Internet access have erased the functional boundary between bits and atoms, while ecommerce, email, and social media have woven the digital world into our everyday lives.

Even more profoundly, I realized, using technologies is not something that makes us less human, or takes us away from our natural selves. Since the invention of stone tools two million years ago, human bodies have co-evolved with our physical tools, while our minds have co-evolved with our cognitive tools. We are, as philosopher Andy Clark puts it, natural-born cyborgs. At its best, this entanglement of person and technology extends our cognitive and physical abilities, gives us great pleasure, and makes us more human.

The challenge with smartphones and social media, then, is not to learn to give them up, but to learn to use them wisely. We need to practice what I call contemplative computing, developing ways of working and interacting with information technologies that help us be more mindful and focused– and thus better people– rather than be endlessly distracted and frustrated.

By better understanding the nature of attention and distraction, by studying how our interactions with technologies go bad, and by experimenting with new ways of using them, we can resolve the paradoxes these technologies seem to bring into our lives. Using them wisely helps us become wiser about ourselves. Being more mindful about HOW we use technologies helps us be more mindful WHILE using them.

This leads me to argue that we should push back against the moral distinction between academic life or digital life on one hand, and real life on the other. We shouldn’t think in terms of a “real life” versus a “digital life” any more than we should think of our lives in the library or laboratory as unreal.

IRL = In Richer Life

To put it another way, we should redefine what the acronym IRL means. When people talk about “going IRL,” one of the things they’re doing is expressing a desire for self-improvement: turning off the devices, going camping or spending time with the family and friends. The impulse is laudable, but the assumption that it can only happen when you hit the off switch is incorrect.

Instead, we should think of RL as a richer life, one of that isn’t driven mainly by distractions, but reflects a serious attempt to create meaning in the world, to do things that matter with our lives, to build and extend our selves. This is an effort in which the thoughtful, judicious, mindful use of technology can play a role– and which those habits of mind that we think of as “academic” can also be intensely useful. We can build lives aren’t merely real, but are richer, using tools that take form in silicon and electrons, or tools that are encoded in words and ideas.

Practicing contemplative computing requires taking a more critical, ethnographic approach to how we use technology; asking basic questions about why we use technologies, noticing unconscious habits, how we think about them, and how they affect the way we think about ourselves. All these ideas could have come from one of Riki’s classes, even though they’re applied in an area that seems outside her scholarly interest.

Riki and the Richer Life

But that ability to follow ideas wherever they lead, to pursue diversions until they reveal something unexpected yet connected to your original interests, is just me channeling another of Riki’s habits.

Riki was an astonishing conversationalist– indeed it was hard to get a word in edgewise. If you didn’t know her you might listen to her monologues and think she was just free associating. But if you listened carefully, you discovered that she would start a sentence, interrupt herself and veer off onto another subject, then do it again, and again– and then, systematically work her way back, until twenty minutes later she finished that first sentence. That ability to draw together a dozen different subjects in a single conversation, to weave between and weave together different ideas, never failed to amaze her students, and I suspect there’s an echo of it in my writing even today.

But in a sense the questions I’m working on now are not outside her area at all. What Riki showed me, through her work and her life, is that far from being an escape from real life, the life of the mind can serve as a model for how to build richer lives.

Indeed, there’s a parallel between our engagement with books and ideas, and our dual lives in the physical and digital worlds.

The categories of “real world” on one hand, and “digital world” or “academic world” on the other, can be remade, and in the course of doing so, we can make better, richer lives for ourselves. A more thoughtful understanding of our everyday engagements with technology can make our lives better. It’s an attempt to make sense of how we should define what it means to be human, how to think about the divide between people and technologies, and to see that the challenge and the opportunity we face is not to learn how to live in real life, but to learn how better to use tools and time to have a richer life.


1 thought on “Riki Kuklick, contemplative computing, and the challenge of real life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll Up