Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: History of Science / STS (page 1 of 3)

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

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From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
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After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.DSCF0875

There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

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From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

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The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

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At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
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The path is a couple hundred yards long.

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At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

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The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

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After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

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All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Journeyman + 20

Twenty years ago I published an essay on the psychological and practical aspects of leaving academia. I had recently moved from U.C. Davis to Chicago and a job at Encyclopedia Britannica, after several years of postdocs and teaching and endless job applications. At the time, there weren’t that many people talking publicly about leaving academic jobs; few humanities or social science Ph.D.s making the argument that you could achieve everything you wanted to as a scholar and writer outside academia; and even fewer were making the argument that the nonacademic world can be a better place to do thoughtful work.

My table at LSE archives

I had been out of academia for less than a year when I wrote the piece, and just starting a new career. I posted the occasional update to the original essay (and a couple pieces of advice to young graduate students), but yesterday it struck me that now– two decades later, and while I wait for the galleys of my next book to arrive– would be a good time to revisit the question of what kind of life a humanist or historian can craft outside the tenure track, and in particular to talk to graduate students and young Ph.D.s who are both thinking about leaving academia, but who still want to research and write.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that the world is full of interesting questions.

By this I mean a couple things. First, while I was trained to look for interesting projects in the archives, or the interstices of scholarly literatures, I’ve found that the questions I encounter as a consultant or as writer are just as engaging. (This is something I’ve talked about elsewhere.)

Second, I’ve found lots of opportunities to use the tools you acquire in graduate school, and to ask the same kinds of questions I did in the seminar room.

Document storage at LSE archives

For example, my work as a futurist and technology forecaster turns out to be a version of STS. There are people who do tech forecasting as a kind of exercise in utopian determinism, but I haven’t; instead, my work has emphasized the open-ended, contingent nature of technological change and innovation, and argued that we need to look at a variety of forces to understand how the future (or future of some specific technology) might unfold. In other words, it’s an exercise recognizable to anyone who’s been exposed to an academic STS program. What’s been surprising to me is how often something I’m working on or interested in turns out to have a dimension that can be explored using the STS toolkit. (Of course, experience helps. If you do something for a long time you get good at finding opportunities to do it; if you spend a long time looking for a pattern you’ll get good at spotting it.)

This doesn’t mean you can do exactly the same work you’d do if you were a professor somewhere: specialized projects that require months of access to one-of-a-kind materials would be hard to do if you didn’t live near them, or have long stretches of time off to spend with them. But what I’ve found is that while the kinds of things I write about now often are different from what I would be writing about if I were a professor, they’re just as interesting— and often, my work serves as a kind of fieldwork that gives me access to things I would never see as a student or academic.

For example, I’ve been able to write about the sociology and materiality of strategic consulting, drawing on my experience working with clients like Deloitte, Samsung, and the CIA. None of them would have ever been interested in having me just observe them; and I would never have learned about scenario planning, or learned the craft of planning and managing workshops.

Though sometimes you can ask the same questions you did as a student, even if the products and my own voice are different. My latest book on rest is a perfect example. It’s written for a general audience, has a healthy mix of neuroscience and current business stuff, and will be published by a trade press (thank you Basic Books!). But it asks a set of questions about creativity and work that I first encountered as a freshman, in a course with the great Thomas Parke Hughes, and have been interested in ever since.

I’m not sure whether, as a tenured professor looking for a promotion, I could write this kind of book.

Back among my people

The other point worth making here is that when you move from writing straight-on academic work to writing more popular stuff, you’re not exchanging the freedom of the life of the mind for the narrow strictures of the marketplace; you’re trading one set of structures that define what constitutes an interesting problem, what value different kinds of products (articles vs. monographs vs. Web sites) have, who’s going to read them, etc., for another. No writing exists outside a network of forces that help answer those questions; it’s just that in one context, the answers are provided by anonymous journal referees and promotion committees, and in another the answers are provided by acquisitions editors, marketing people, and agents.

But even when they’re different kinds of work, different audiences, different products, it’s possible for futures and consulting work to offer the same kind of intellectual engagement and flow that I was always seeking as a graduate student and postdoc: it’s possible to enjoy this work in the same ways I enjoyed scholarly work. At the end of the day, I think that’s what matters most. You really can’t predict if a book is going to make a big splash, or get a huge readership, or sink without a trace; all you can do is write the best book you can, and have as good as time writing it as possible.

There are lots of resources available to non-academics for building a scholarly habitus.

One obvious concern that you’ll have is that the unique resources of research universities won’t be available to you if you leave, and therefore holding on for a few years of adjuncting in exchange for continued access to the library– and ultimately the hope that you can publish your way out of the margins of the job market and into a permanent job– makes sense.

Perhaps for super-specialized fields, this is true; but I think that for most of us, it’s possible to reassemble our own scholarly habitus. While I was writing REST, I was struck at how much I had come to rely on four sets of resources, three of which are easily available:

Denver Public Library

The public library. Of course it’s awesome to bury yourself in the stack of Sterling or Weidener or wherever; on our last vacation to London, my wife and I chose a hotel not far from the British Library. But for 70% of what I do, my local public library branch is all I really need. You shouldn’t bend the arc of your life in order to have access to those feschrisfts and proceedings that you might use once in blue moon.

Amazon’s used books. Of course, I love my local used bookstores, and Keplers Books; my wife and I always stop at the used bookstores in Willits when we visit Northern California; and I bought an absurd number of books when I was last in England. But Amazon’s used books service lets me buy huge numbers of weird, otherwise impossible-to-find books, at absurdly low prices. I’m not talking about a cheap copy of Daniel Kahneman’s book; I mean some weird thing from 1961 that no one wants, and which is sitting in a warehouse in Pennsylvania.  When a book costs a penny (plus $3.99 shipping), it becomes trivially easy to decide to buy it and try it.

Google Books. For more specialized stuff Google Books is an erratic resource, but when you do find something useful on it, it feels like sorcery.

Of course, having access to a university library, and in particular to its subscriptions to scholarly online journals, is super-helpful. But don’t think that because you can’t spend all your days in the library, your scholarly life is over. You can build a scholarly habitus anywhere. Like the life of the mind, the space for thinking is a lot more portable and durable than we think.

Many great thinkers have had day jobs.

Most writers, musicians, composers, poets, and painters have jobs that pay the bills. One striking commonality in the biographies of famous authors is how many of them don’t quit their job at the advertising agency, as a schoolteacher, or give up their insurance businesses or law practices, until their third or fourth books. It often takes that long for them to establish a name, become familiar enough with the business to move confidently, and sell enough books to keep the wolf from the door.

Indeed, most academics and scholars have day jobs: they’re teachers, administrators, and advisors. As a result, the amount of time you have for your own work after committee meetings, office hours, lecture prep, grading, etc. can be vanishingly small; the fact that you’re completely responsible for managing that time paradoxically makes it feel worse when you don’t manage to crank out a book every two years, or whatever you imagine you should be able to do.

Something else to look forward to when the 1% get even more: Human sacrifice

Anthropologists and historians have put forward the ‘social control hypothesis’ of human sacrifice. According to this theory, sacrificial rites served as a function for social elites. Human sacrifice is proposed to have been used by social elites to display their divinely sanctioned power, justify their status, and terrorise underclasses into obedience and subordination. Ultimately, human sacrifice could be used as a tool to help build and maintain systems of social inequality…. However, up until now, this idea had not been rigorously tested.

With my colleagues at the University of Auckland and elsewhere, we recently tested the social control hypothesis using a sample of 93 Austronesian-speaking cultures, and published our findings in Nature. The Austronesian family of cultures originated in Taiwan, developed outrigger canoes, and were some of the greatest ocean voyagers in human history. Thousands of years before the Viking sagas, the Austronesians had begun their great expansion, sailing west to Madagascar, east to Easter Island and south to Aotearoa – a total area covering more than half the world’s longitude….

We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian. The overlap in religious and political authority allowed ritualised human sacrifice to be used by social elites to build and maintain social inequality. In Austronesian cultures, specialist religious knowledge, such as how to perform elaborate prayers or magic rituals, could be handed down through elite family lineages. In many c

Source: How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality | Aeon Ideas

Tim Wu on the “sofalarity”

I missed this in when it first came out in 2014:

In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”

We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”

The Oji-Cree… no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times…. But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances….

If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts. (Tim Wu, “As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?”)

“My Mother’s Lover”

A terrific story, well worth your time on a Sunday morning:

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes.

Source: My Mother’s Lover — The Atavist Magazine

Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

Science writer Margaret Wertheim writes about sexism in science. One of the many lines that lines struck me:

I think about all the young women now being forced out of science by harassment and ongoing inequities, and part of me begins to explode. Jahren ends her New York Times piece by telling us that ‘adorably dorky’ – the best student she’s ever had – is considering leaving the field. Two of the complainants against Marcy have left astronomy. What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges?

It hadn’t occurred to me before, but one of the reasons this kind of bad behavior can continue is that that we live in an era when lots of “priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science”– and scholarship of all kinds– for all kinds of reasons. For at least the last generation, thanks to the expansion of undergraduate education and overproduction of Ph.D.s, universities have turned themselves into places where brilliant humans are an infinite, disposable resource, not something to be nurtured and sustained.

Source: Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

The Busyness of Modern Life project

Forgive me if I've referenced this before, but I find this new Wellcome Collection project too interesting:

The urge to be busy defines modern life. Rest can seem hard to find, whether in relation to an exhausted body, a racing mind or a hectic city. Should we slow down, or should we embrace intense activity? What effects do each of these states have on the health of our bodies and minds? Such questions frequently find their way into media reports and everyday conversations, but there has never been any sustained interdisciplinary attempt to answer them. The Hub will gather international experts investigating hubbub and rest at different scales, to breathe new life into the questions we ask about rest and busyness.

It's not really clear to me what The Hub is, other than yet another converted lofty-Ikea-filled team collaboration buzzspace, but hey, those aren't bad, and you can always escape them when you need solitude. Still, you can't fault the idea of a project on rest and busyness.

Einstein and everyday thinking

There’s a famous quote by Albert Einstein that “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” I’d heard it a number of times, but today I ran across a note by Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Klahr pointing out that Einstein’s aim was not to make science seem simple, but to call attention to the complexity of normal thinking. For Einstein continues:

It is for this reason that the critical thinking of the physicist cannot possibly be restricted to the examination of concepts of his own specific field. He cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem, the problem of analyzing the nature of everyday thinking.

The idea that “analyzing the nature of everyday thinking” is a “difficult problem” rather changes the meaning of the first line.

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.

Introduction

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.

 

“As we go about our lives using our mysterious technologies, what kinds of people are we enabling them to make up?”

Deanna Day, a grad student at my alma mater, wrote a nice little piece on “Harry Potter, Wizards, and How We Let Technology Create Who We Are.” It gets seriously into the weeds of the Harry Potter universe, but it makes a serious point about how magic and technology can shape their users:

Muggles and wizards alike are mystified by the mechanisms of objects like iPads and Sorting Hats, and this ignorance can often, ironically, create a deep sense of trust in these objects. We create stories that explain their behavior, and when our tools work, it cements the validity of those stories. How else to explain their mechanism, be it magical or mechanical? But when we allow our technologies to remain opaque, we also prevent ourselves from seeing the crucial ways they make us who we are….

Most of the piece is about how wands work, who can use them, and their relationship to their users (e.g., the whole “wand chooses the wizard” thing). She concludes:

[T]he stories that wizards tell about their tools don’t match up with how they’re used in practice. The wand chooses the wizard, because that’s what wizards want to believe about their type of magic. In this story, wizards are special, and wands are objective proof. In another example, the Sorting Hat is believed to reveal one’s true identity, until an arguing student reveals that the Hat’s interpretation — and its social consequences — are much more negotiable than its song would imply.

In this (and many other) ways, the wizarding world exists in parallel with the muggle world…. By pointing out some of the ways that the technologies of the wizarding world are constructed — and the kinds of wizards they construct — we might also be better able to see the workings of our own muggle magic. As we go about our lives using our mysterious technologies, what kinds of people are we enabling them to make up?

 

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