Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Geography and Mass Communication? Really?

I'm not going to come out so cheery and positive right away about this conjunction of disciplines. I got to it at the wrong moment for me.

I came back to academia this year leaving a job where I had to make up almost everything I did as I went along, and had probably three persons' worth of that to do. I was fried and looking for something to put the world back into coherence. I wanted guidance, and school is where you get that.

I chose geography for a lot of reasons, but one of which was its interdisciplinary flexibility---I've never liked simply settling down in a nice old rut---but I think this time, this characteristic frustrated me more than it attracted my unconventional nature. I really wanted traction, some tools that I could put to future use, some concise boundaries, a clear structure. Instead I got an interesting meander through a ton of circumstance, out of which I had a lot of trouble extracting foundational concepts, although I don't doubt they were there. I've come out with a richer understanding of the world and history, but I don't think I have a good handle on my chosen discipline, which is sort of disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps I've become too practical. Perhaps I needed to take this course a year from now, when I had the tools to understand and appreciate it. Given that others have said it took a while to grasp the topic, I don't feel alone, and I suspect I will value what we've done here more down the road, once I have some context.

I think this is what happens when disciplines meet, at least sometimes. We're in that stage where we have to create the place between. It's a lot of work. We've pulled together as experienced initiates, we're juggling cannons rich in historical undulation, we're testing waters barely traversed, and we're not sure what will come out of it. Perhaps only one seminar, or perhaps a series of seminars that will start forming its own guiding ideas. For now, what we do know, as many of you have said, is that there are a lot of things going on in the world that this interdiscipline embraces. I don't doubt that, simply looking at how undersea internet cables were cut this year legitimates the endeavor. And it's a useful place for us. We get a new perspective here, and it's fertile. It's like sitting on the rug with all the Legos spread around you. You can build all kinds of things, even if not all of them will stand. Why shouldn't it be a place?

For one, as we talked about, technology moves so fast that academia, with it's slower mechanisms of proof and discussion, can't keep up meaningfully.

For another, although there are plenty of world issues to address in this cross-section, are we sure they can't be addressed in other places? Which should it be, "Geography OF Communications" or "Geography AND Communications"? Because aren't our analyses geographic, and our topic communications? Technology doesn't have a discipline either, despite the huge role it plays. Perhaps then, we don't have the capacity for so many disciplines. It may remain a place in between. A place with Legos on the rug.

But these may turn out not important in the long run. The greatest worth I found in this semester was the repeating discovery of how our perceptions of how the world was working did not line up with how it was really working. People thought technology was a big equalizer, but we find out that it is also unevenly distributed. People thought a new technology would knock out another older one, and usually it does not. People thought workplaces, face-to-face interaction, and libraries would disappear. They did not. This investigation has created new carrying metaphors for research, like the space of flows, and new ideas for policy. Making sure that we don't simply depend on predictions and summaries to understand the world, that we check back on ourselves, figure out who we were and who we are, and that we do the research, find the trends, build the theories; that I think is the most valuable part of what we do. And that can be done from any place, even a place that's not quite a place yet, like this one.


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