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Last night at a 4th of July gathering, I met a friendly and thoughtful Botanist. His research involved invasive plants. He was using historical satellite imagery to help identify the effects of invasive plant density on the surrounding flora ecology. Part of his challenge was in actually identifying the plant density within the satellite imagery, which was often below the forest canopy. We spoke a little about the image analysis problem, which of course got me all hot and bothered. In my typical manic and undisciplined fashion, I began asking lots of questions about the imaging algorithms, etc, and I felt him pulling back some. He said he himself wouldn’t be doing the imaging stuff, but a co-investigator (a Geographer) would be dealing with that. I felt we had had our first fight. (Although we had only known each other for about 5 minutes.) I seem to have this effect on certain people, which got me thinking about another recent conversation I had with a Geologist friend, who does do a lot of his own image analysis work. This friend loves speaking about the algorithmic parts of his research, which involves ground water flow. I asked the Geologist if he now prefers the computer flow modeling work more than the actual Geology. He very honestly said he did. (But I could tell it was a guilty pleasure.)

This seems to be a growing problem in many disciplines (at least the perception is); the tools and processes of analysis and production are often as (or even more) fascinating than the original inquiry. I don’t really see this as a “confusing the forest for the trees” sort of problem that should justify a fear or guilt response, but rather see it as indicative of a much deeper and more fundamental problem, namely “technoprocessguiltophobia”. (OK, so this is a silly word that I made up.) At the core of technoprocessguiltophobia is the belief that “serious” work should be the byproduct of focus, intent and most importantly prioritization. Getting lost in a process, such as creating some imaging algorithm, is not the priority when you are focused on the “big picture” (plant ecology,) and there are others who are experts in this sort of thing: Regardless if you’re fascinated by a (tactical) process, it’s essential to remain focused on the goals of your (strategic) research and stay the course. However, what probably got you interested in your original discipline to begin with was this very sort of digressive fascination (if you’re lucky.)

Our evolving digital tools are fascinating. They are also decadent, often silly, expensive and very time-sucking. But of course the technology is really us, so arguably techno-phobia a is a strange sort of self-loathing (another blog post here?) The same urge to understand the structure of a leaf in the 18th century is what’s driving us to model it with bits in the 21st century, which is also the same urge to develop the tools to model it. Only we seem to give value to certain activities that have historical (romantic) precedence–so a naturalist’s traditional process of looking, touching, measuring, etc seems more benign (guilt-free) than a bunch of detached bit shifting happening in a computer. I am in no way suggesting that the naturalist should stop going to nature and doing fieldwork. However, I am strongly recommending that the naturalist let herself get lost and fascinated in the process, even if the process falls outside of their current expertise or seems digressive to the original research mission. (Obviously this might not work for junior faculty in the current system, myself included.) Ultimately, I would argue that the sense of play (re)introduced into their process, through process-focus, will invigorate their research, broaden their perspective and help eradicate the disciplinary silos strangling universities (especially the segments that don’t have access to huge government/industry funding streams.)

Well back to working on my very digressive (and currently pretty buggy) 3D rendering engine, something 8 years of classical painting training prepared me well for?


One Comment

  1. I can’t resist replying to this posting, partly with a comment I heard this morning on NPR. A NASA scientist/engineer who was partly responsible for the Columbia disaster was asked, “How do you feel?” when watching a successful shuttle launch on the 4th of July. He said, “I’ll have time for feelings when I’m dead.” Part of technophobia, then, consists in buying into an academic culture of ascesis: we have no feelings; we’re busy. But nobody mistook he 17th-c naturalists who examined plants with microscopes for ascetics. Closer to aesthetes, the “virtuousi” were seen as quite literally addicted to curiosity. When Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of you-know-who) writes his great poem “The Botanic Garden,” horticultural curiosity is indelibly linked to sexual curiosity. And the parody in Gulliver’s Travels of scientific rationalism — in the projectors of Lagado but also in the Houyhnhnms — presents it as passion taken to the level of fascism. Given this history of cold rational busy science, I completely buy Ira’s argument that technophobia is really a fear of having exposed the love and desire that motivates disciplinary study which will happen, it seems, by turning to a new addiction.  I don’t think, as some theorists seem to, that rationality is necessarily fascist: the drive to rationality is, but maybe we are only driven insofar as we can’t admit that rationalism (practicing math or a science) expresses desire and love.

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