I thought I had a really good idea about where I wanted to go with my PhD research. I’ve been interested in memory and nostalgia for a really long time, especially when it comes to the storage and retrieval of memories, the emotional attachments that we form with physical objects, and the way that we respond to digital objects as opposed to physical ones. “Great” I thought, “I’m getting somewhere with this”. I did some reading, some planning, I’ve read papers and books in fields like memory studies, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, media studies, anthropology. And I wrote a draft research proposal, an idea for a research question, on design for nostalgia and serendipity in archive software. “Not too shabby” I thought, “for someone who is new to this whole academic research gig.” But then something went wrong. For the last few days I’ve been hanging out in the rehearsal space with the lovely ensemble at Circus Oz as they prepare for their upcoming show in Melbourne, and as we (RMIT that is) ramp-up our research practice where the Living Archive project is concerned. It was a great experience (and one I hope to continue) – I’ve been “playing anthropologist” – hanging out in the corner with my notebook, observing people, conversations, physical and technological practices. Watching how a group like this puts together a coherent and complex circus show is absolutely fascinating. Problem is, this tiny bit of actual, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it research has changed my mind completely about what it is that I want to do with my PhD. I keep saying that I want to produce “useful, simple software”, and from my observations so far, what would be useful to Circus Oz isn’t some kind of archive that facilitates nostalgic engagement and tries to transfer characteristics and practices from “real world” archives in to “digital” archives blah blah blah… What they want is something they can use, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it, as they work and develop and produce and perform. And there is something in that thought – a research question that addresses a real, useful, practical application: video archives as an augment to an existing physical development practice, or practical applications for video in performing arts repertoire development, or….? So I’m a little stuck now. I need to turn around and re-write my research proposal form an entirely different perspective (which involves a whole new path of background-reading), and I’m under time pressure: I want to get a new draft to my supervisor this weekend, I’m off to WWDC next week, and I’m supposed to present my research proposal to a panel as soon as I get back. I’m just guessing here, but I get the feeling that this is just how PhDs go. Everything you read and do sends you off on a new tangent – you follow a path for a while and get sidetracked, or hit a dead-end and have to turn around. I’m chalking this one up to experience – if I’m going to spend all this time watching circus performers practice their backflips, I might as well start practicing mine.
I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.
My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent
I’ve been a fan of Sennheiser headphones for a long time. My HD25s have followed me around the world, they have wonderful sound isolation and a great flat frequency response that I love, and I’m a big fan of supra-aural headphones (not for everyone, I know). I’ve just bought a pair of smaller, lighter, Sennheiser PXC-250 II for travel and work. They are lightweight, have great sound, and the noise cancelling works quite well – the sound quality isn’t perfect (with noise cancelling headphones it never is), but it’s a lot better than iPhone earbuds and they are more convenient to carry than my HD25s.
I’ve always, almost without exception, listened to music while working. For the majority of this period, “work” consisted of programming – working with other peoples designs, making them interactive, making them move, solving minor technical or technological or design or architectural (in the software sense) problems. Plus the other minutiae that goes along with any freelance or programming job – emails, code maintenance, communication, business management issues. This was “work”.
And my work could always be done while listening to something. In more recent years as my programming skills improved and my programming work became more straightforward (I’d developed patterns to solve the same problems over and over – most websites are pretty much the same after all), I began listening to podcasts – my brain was at a point where my work was done in some subconscious part, separate from words and language. I could listen to people talking and comprehend that information at the same time as “working”. Very occasionally I would run in to a problem where I had to turn off my audio for a minute or two to get through something, but that was it. I liked this about working – in later years as a bored programmer it was something to look forward to: work was my music and information time.
I’m no longer a programmer in the same sense anymore. Although programming will be part of my work for the next few years, my work is not primarily programming – my work is now “research”. And as a PhD candidate, that means reading. Reading reading reading reading. Reading and paying attention. Reading and thinking and writing about and around what I’ve read.
Problem is, I can’t read and comprehend an academic paper, or journal article, or thesis, or book – and listen to music at the same time. I can’t think through a complex conceptual problem and listen to music at the same time. I can sometimes listen to music and write, depending on what I’m writing about, and as long as the music is repetitive or very familiar, or both. I can’t do any of these things and listen to podcasts.
I remember hearing on a Radiolab episode that included an experiment where subject’s language centres were effectively “shut down” by being forced to repeat strings of random words piped to them via headphones, while they tried to complete basic tasks. Without access to language, people were unable to make the most basic conceptual links: unable to connect “direction” and “colour” in ideas such as “left of the blue wall”. This is how it feels when I listen to music and read at the same time. I can read all the words and sentences, but the ideas just don’t connect.
Now, this doesn’t really surprise me – somehow it makes sense that I can separate “programming” and “language” in my brain but not “language” and “music”. Programming always seemed a technical, craft-like, mechanical problem. Music is a steady flow of connected concepts and ideas.
My problem is really related to routine – for me, forever, I listen to music when I work. It’s part of who I am. Was. I mean was: right now, I’ve got some reading to do.