Blog Post

Making Like Kant

Yesterday I was telling someone about the book I'm working on, a newmodel of mind for the digital age, and she asked how I spent my days. Was it at a lab conducting experiments? Or interviewing subjects? Doing ethnography? Sorting through archives? It was an excellentquestion. If I had been one notch more pretentious, I think my answer might havebeen: I've spent the last eighteen months making like Kant.

 

Readers of this blog have read about the deliriously wonderful eighteen months of leave I've spent burrowed in my study, deep inside the recesses of my mind, reading articles and books and more articles and books and more articles and books at a pace more prodigious than anything I did as a graduate student. Reading, thinking, reading, thinking, thinking, and more thinking. What an old-fashioned methodology for the co-founder of HASTAC! This year was the diametrical opposite to the past decade of hands' on, engaged management of interdisciplinary institutions of various sorts. I spent a decade interacting, nine meetings a day, fourteen meetings a day, lots of time on planes, consulting here or there, lecturing, talking to groups, running seminars, a life pretty far from that idyllic "Ivory Tower." After a decade as a supposed expert on difficult collaborations across fields, after a decade developing ways that digital affordances could enhance informal learning and that formal education could be responsive to the informal ways kids learn and socialize today, I needed some time to figure out what (if anything) was left inside my own head. More than that, I came away from all of that real-world experience with some of the most provocative thinkers, scholars, technology specialists, and inventors with a lot of unanswered questions. Big questions about how we think and how current models of mind (in science and philosophy, psychology and management theory, artificial intelligence and biology) actually limit the possibilities for creative, productive interaction. Big questions about how we know the world. All the labs I visited, the surveys I helped to construct and analyze, the management workshops I conducted filled me with some answers but also lots of big questions and I wanted a "methodology" to address those questions in a suitably big way. Making like Kant.

 

You have read in previous postings about my long walks with my friend Priscilla where we eschew any talk of the university with which we both happen to be affiliated, any talk of professional politics, and just tackle big subjects. Genomics. Neuroaesthetics. Epidemiology. Neural Darwinism. Dopamine Latency. Schizophrenia. Inattentional blindness. Neural plasticity. Synesthesia. Cultural definitions of the senses. (More than one colleague has come up behind us and groused, "This is a walk, not a seminar!")

 

We walk and we talk. At other times, when Priscilla is away, I will spend days reading the most specialized medical or scientific journals on a given subject, and then I will walk. And walk. And walk. By myself, in deep conversation with myself. Do I remember to wear both shoes? Do my socks match? Is my hair a wild tangle? Am I walking in my pj's? Do I have that Crazed Philosopher Look when I run into humans who seem to know me from somewhere? Making like Kant, I breeze past them, muttering to myself about models of mind for the digital age. They step aside.

 

Since I believe bilateral movement enhances cognition, on these walks I am practicing what I am preaching. But I am also using this very old philosophical method to try to make a map of conclusions from many areas of research--from philosophy to neuroscience to anthropology to psychology to learning theory--that normally do not talk to one another and among an array of brilliant thinkers (I'm ruthless about not reading the dull ones) in fields that rarely read one another and often do not even respect one another. I spend a lot of this mental time filling in gaps, those places where a scientist makes a grand extrapolation from a precisely elegant experiment (let's say about saccades) to a grand, evolutionary conclusion about 'what makes us human.' Really? What unspoken categories of knowledge fill that epochal gap between the lab in La Jolla and the veldt in the Pleistocene. There are many acts of faith and speculation needed to leap from experiment to neural Darwinism. I've spent eighteen months thinking about what is unspoken (and sometimes unexamined) before a given scientist takes that bold leap.

 

It has been as thrilling and immersive an adventure into a rich new world--a world of ideas--as the first year I lived in Japan. I went to Japan many years ago, without preliminaries, because another colleague was not able to go, with almost no advance preparation in language or any particular prior interest in the culture. I was teaching at Michigan State at the time, untenured, and my chair asked if I could fulfill the department's obligation and pick up and move to a small town between Osaka and Kobe. Lansing or Kobe? It was an easy choice and one that was life-changing, living in a town with only three other "gaijin" (foreigners), winging it, learning the language as I stumbled through the warren of tiny streets that led to the ichiba (the covered market).

 

My year of delicious leave, my year of making like Kant, has been much like that, a gaijin in every field I enter, finding my way, learning the language, understanding the customs, feeling my way toward insights about this disciplinary culture that is not my own.

 

I've had some guidebooks, various friends who are specialists in the fields who put up with my grilling. As anyone who has seriously taught undergraduates knows, it is only when explaining one's specialized research to those who know little about the professionalization of one's field that one uncovers the great rifts. This is another lesson from my time in Japan, of course. "What do Americans mean by 'originality'?" a student would ask me, perplexed by my injunctions against plagiarism, a concept as baffling to my students as giri ninjo was to me. "What do Westerners mean by 'reason'?" another would ask. Or "If mind isn't the same as body, where does the one end and the other begin?" Those kinds of questions require Kantian walks.

 

And writing Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan was the retrospective record of that journey, my passing-it-on to others who might vicariously want to take that journey with me. I'm doing the same, now, with the book I'm writing now too. My year of thinking, reading, walking. Making like Kant.

 

I've never had a year like this. Mine has been a very professional academic life. And, for well over a decade, I lived as a very public academic. I edited the major journal in my field and presided over my professional association. I made a reputation for interdisciplinary work, histories of technology that included archives, ethnographies, surveys, theories. To understand how 18th century mass printing worked (and, yes, I realize this is a bit obsessional), I worked every (every!) extant printing press from that time period in the U.S. One of the most exhilarating mornings of my life was when a curator at the Ford Museum in Michigan allowed me to operate every single press they had, maybe six or seven of them. I digress. As the co-founder of HASTAC, I've also been very public . . . the InFormation Year of 2006-2007 meant coordinating events across eighty separate institutions ranging from supercomputing centers to arts facilities. And during my eight years as the first full-time Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, I worked with faculty from the medical school to the divinity school and every switch-point in between. Since no one else had this position at other universities, I consulted constantly with other institutions as well as with virtually every major nonprofit, foundation, policy organization, and think tank. It was such a fabulous job, being charged with "innovation" without a domain to put limits on innovative thinking.

 

And since it meant my own scholarship was on hold for much of that very public time, I indulged myself by always reading the work of the scholars I met with. I learned about them and their turn of mind before we worked to put those ideas, typically in tandem with other thinkers from very different backgrounds, into practice.

 

What I came to see is how often, given the rigid specialization of higher education, the people whose work I was reading for my 9 am meeting intersected with people whose work I was reading for my noon business lunch--but they typically did not know of one another's work. I had the delicious job of introducing them to one another. Sometimes it took, sometimes it didn't, but it was inspiring being a conduit for eight years. I could not imagine a better job or a more exciting or a more deeply, freely intellectual one. And it was inspiring to see people make new kinds of programs for research and teaching that reached across boundaries that, at many universities, are seldom crossed. Duke is a fabulous place for the unusual, cross-disciplinary, and cross-divisional conversations it inspires. It's too young an institution to have ideas about "the Duke way" in the same way that was commonplace at the Ivy League university where I once taught. Its claim to fame and reputation lies in its interdisciplinary innovation. For me, that's a dream. I've stayed here for so long precisely because of the crossfertilization of ideas here that is so rare in academe. And for eight years, that was my job.

 

And then somewhere in my sixth or seventh year (I had promised only to be in the position for three, having never been or wanted to be an administrator prior to this position), I had to make a choice. Did I want to become a college or foundation president? Or did I want to return to scholarship and teaching? I truly felt like I'd been given the opportunity to have the best administrative job in the world. I looked at some others but they weren't for me. And, besides, I had a big idea from all that reading, all those consulting and managerial experiences, and I wanted to see if I could make it work, go from an idea and a method I'd put into practice in my everyday life to something I could communicate to others, insights that were concrete, on paper, worked out, applied as well as theoretical. I began to see from this world of hands' on experiences I'd accumulated in my eight years as what was once described (this makes me chuckle) as the "nation's first vice provost for everything," that we needed a new model of mind to comprehend our moment. And then some guidelines to show how that model of mind could actually make it easier for us to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Relearning to learn: easier said than done, and almost impossible with a "hardwired" model of mind. I was convinced we needed a more supple, new model for the new digital age.

 

That is my conviction: that models of mind suit eras. The hardwired, localized, hierarchical, fixed mind worked well for the late nineteenth-century's industrial age and even served us pretty well for much of the twentieth century. But the digital age's collaboration by difference, its social networks, its challenges to hierarchy and expertise, its constant customizing, its always-on overload, and its Toffler-esque imperatives to learn, unlearn, and relearn demand not just a new way of thinking (what I call "digital thinking") and a new form of learning (what the MacArthur Foundation calls "participatory learning"), but a new model of mind.

 

Understanding the neuroscience, the cognitive psychology, the ethnography, the physics, the AI, the social functions, and the cultural attributes of this new model of mind has meant that, for the last eighteen months, I have spent as much time as I can (when I'm not working with my HASTAC team and my MacArthur Foundation team) reading and reading, thinking and thinking some more, and then walking. I'd had a decade or more of hands' on experience, but I needed the eighteen months to take a big step backwards, to spend a lot of time in my own interior space, thinking about all I had learned but now translating that into some general principles that might be useful, even revelatory, to others.

 

My eighteen months at my undisclosed location is coming to an end soon. My eighteen months of making like Kant is winding down. It has been the most fabulous, exciting journey. It could not have happened without my fantastic HASTAC team, at Duke and at UCHRI in California, and my incredible MacArthur Foundation colleagues, both at the Foundation itself and across the country. These are the people whose work and dedication, whose energy and intelligence and commitment inspire me every day. I couldn't have done it without Priscilla, my walking partner. And I couldn't have had this amazing eighteen months without a lot of friends (and my partner, Ken) who indulged my stubborn, stubborn insistence that I wasn't actually here in my little study in Durham, looking out at the Japanese garden I built over the course of these eighteen months (another practice, like walking). When I wasn't actually there working with them, I was (so was the conceit of the year) at an undisclosed location. Cordoned off. Undisturbed. On a remarkable inward journey. Making like Kant.

 

You have to understand, I spend at least three afternoons each and every week at the Franklin Center working on the complexities of HASTAC's model of collaboration by difference and the MacArthur Foundation's exciting, visionary, innovative international Digital Media and Learning Competition. I answer dozens and dozens of emails a day, from well before dawn until late at night, and typically for an insomniac hour or so in between. It is not, by most people's standards, a "year off" and it is certainly not a vacation. And the very people with whom I come into contact in those contexts allow me to do that good, hard work with them----but then they leave me to my own thoughts, my own book-in-progress, my own Japanese garden, my own walks. How many times has Priscilla been disturbed by some departmental or institutional issue but put it aside because she knows I really need not to know about that particular matter? How many times has Srinivas seen me, had something on which he'd love my advice, but then turned away, knowing that an embroiled institutional question would suck me in, would take me away from the undisclosed location? (Another time, I might write about equilibrium and time . . . working hard on a project somehow doesn't intrude into the location the way certain forms of unappealing university politics do. It is the latter I've avoided and that my friends have conspired to help me avoid.)

 

People think spending time at an undisclosed location takes great willpower on my part, to be both deeply engaged in HASTAC and Foundation projects with my extended team of colleagues, and to then be able to go back into my hermit-like world. And it does take willpower, but it is not just mine. It is the deep friendship, commitment, and sustaining support of my colleagues, in allowing me to maintain the illusion of an undisclosed location, that has allowed these eighteen months of making like Kant. That is indisputably, irrefutably true.

 

It is a special joy to be emerging from the undisclosed location having developed a new theory of mind for this digital age and to have written several hundred pages that I am now honing down, shaping, crafting, making lively and engaging. My students, next term, in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," will be my interlocutors and that prospect fills me with delight. It is also a special joy to be able to thank all of the friends, loved ones, students, HASTAC'ers, and colleagues, without whom this really amazing intellectual journey would not have been possible.

 

May all of you have a wonderful break, a wonderful holiday season, and I look forward to seeing you back in the real world of 2009!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My thanks to Flickr community member Sobibor for this image. Please click on the image for more of Sobibor's photostream and full documentation

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