PhD Journal Entry 10: Finally, a Question

It has been too long since my last PhD journal entry here on Lounge Ruminator, however to be clear, I am also attempting to maintain a journal to document my lessons and efforts in podcasting and a separate one for my thoughts and ideas as I read… on top of all the note-taking! Of course, this is all self-inflicted but I do enjoy the process of discovery and reflection.

I feel that I have come a long way since my last entry, as I have continued my reading not only in media ecology and podcasting, but also in radio, fan studies and parasocial interaction. This combined literature has helped me to craft a research question, which was my greatest struggle. All along, I have been interested in the artistic creation, technical details and fan practices that go into the production and consumption of niche tech podcasts. There is a genuine feeling of community among the producers and fans of the shows that I listen to—which is naturally present in many other types of fandom or group—however there is also a determination to discuss the how and why of the medium of podcasting. This is something that podcasters in other genres (true crime or sport, for example) do not discuss: what it means to podcast and how it should be done. It feels like a different world of podcasting within the wider galaxy of podcasting.

After attempting to word various different questions, some of which were too long or vague, I finally settled on a question to drive my research, of which both of my supervisors fortunately approve:

How do indie producers of niche tech podcasts present a “countervailing thrust” against more mainstream, corporate players in the industry?

In formulating this question, I now have a much clearer sense of direction and clarity. Over time, as I was reading more texts, it seemed that I was looking at all podcasts—too great a task!—when I was actually supposed to be looking at a particular type of podcasting practice, within the networks that interest me.

I have also found texts that combine various aspects of media ecology and podcasting scholarship. A great example is one by MacDougall (2011), who some time ago cited McLuhan and Ong in proposing the idea that podcasting is a kind of secondary orality—an example of a new oral culture that is aware of and builds on its literary/print-based roots. MacDougall (2011) also cites Carey in his assertion that podcasting is a new kind of ritualistic communication. At first, I felt a sense of dread that my thinking was no longer original, as I had enthusiastically noted these ideas down myself, prior to reading his text. Upon reflection and discussion with my supervisors, however, it was concluded that this is a good thing; someone has already said it, so I can’t be that crazy. Instead, I can build on these ideas to found out niche tech podcasting challenges the mainstream.

I am now spending more time exploring literature in the field of radio studies. I had been reading about podcasting first, which when considering the emergence of each medium chronologically, may not seem to make any sense. The funny thing is that as in order to determine who I should read in the scholarly world of radio (as a beginner in the field), I had to read podcast scholars first to see who they cited from the field, either to acknowledge its influence or insist that podcasting is its own thing.

Very soon, I will have to do a lot of writing for my literature review. There is still much to read before that time, however I now feel confident that things are now crystallising in my mind.

Source: MacDougall, R.C., 2011, ‘Podcasting and Political Life’, in American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 55, No. 6, pp. 714–732.

PhD Journal Entry 9: For the Rest of Us?

The most enjoyable aspect of my PhD research so far has been the discovery of myriad different perspectives on the history of technology, written by a range of media ecologists.

Occasionally, in such reading, I have discovered a study or views that challenge my preconceived ideas or in one particular recent case, have even challenged my identity. I experienced exactly this while reading a 2002 article titled The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction, written by Susan Barnes.

In this journal article, Barnes (2002) explains that the realisation of the graphical user interface (GUI)—upon which all desktop computers (and subsequent mobile devices) are based—was the result of four distinct stages of development: (1) the ‘ideals-driven’ stage; (2) the ‘play-driven’ stage; (3) the ‘product-driven’ stage; and (4) the ‘market-driven’ stage. To explain this further, Barnes (2002, p. 81) outlines the history more specifically:

In the first stage, Douglas Engelbart conceived certain ideas about how people should ideally interact with computers and he developed computer systems that incorporated those ideals. The resulting technology was next expanded and elaborated, in the play-driven stage of development, by Alan Kay and his fellow researchers at Xerox PARC. In the third stage, the PARC prototypes were later turned into commercial products by Apple Computer. Finally, in the market-driven stage, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft started competing with each other in the development of GUI technology in hopes of dominating the enormous technology marketplace.

It is the product-driven stage to which many Apple fans would cling, as the narrative tells us that Apple refined and popularised this concept for accessible (indirect) computer interaction with a mouse.

As an Apple fan from early childhood—growing up with a Mac—the philosophy and brand of the company has long been a part of my identity. I accept and respect the advantages of other PC brands and vendors but much prefer what Apple offers. This quote from Barne’s (2002, p. 88) article seems to justify this achievement:

The Macintosh was the bridge into the fourth stage of development, the market-driven stage. Bill Gates took Macintosh’s Desktop Finder interface and with minor modifications marketed it as Microsoft Windows.

That is, until I read further into the article and discovered the following section, which explains how the development of the graphical interface and its grander purpose at Xerox PARC was cut short (Barnes, 2002, p. 90):

…the results of this study suggest that, a pivotal moment in the history of graphical interfaces was Jobs’s decision to apply the visual screen elements to Apple computers without the underlying programming language. Jobs’s intention was primarily to sell computers, and in the interest of that objective he largely ignored the social and cognitive ideals underlying the earlier designs. Today, Jobs’s decision can be viewed as a historical turning point that created paradoxical situations for the future development of GUI development.

When the original Macintosh was released in 1984, it was hailed as the computer ‘for the rest of us’. It was supposed to be intuitive and more accessible to a wider range of people than early command-line-driven computers were. For those who remember, IBM was the enemy at the time. With Barnes’s (2002) study and assessment of Apple’s role, she challenges this history (or myth, if you prefer), by saying that Apple essentially cut the development of the GUI short.

I was already aware of the story of Jobs’s visit to Xerox PARC and adoption of the GUI idea, however I was unaware of this approach to the story. I had always viewed the release of (then) Mac OS as the ultimate popularisation of accessible computing, rather than the inhibitor to a wondrous future of true digital and technological literacy.

Instead, Barnes (2002) essentially argues that by releasing a personal computer in the form of an easy all-in-one appliance, Apple completely closed the platform to investigation and comprehension by users through education about how to program properly, thus creating what Innis would call a ‘monopoly of knowledge’ with a business and profit-driven intention. In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, media ecologist Neil Postman (1993, p. 3) defines Innis’s term: ‘…those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence‘.

Ultimately, by making it easy to use, Apple stopped people (other than programmers/developers) from ever really learning how a computer works. As an enthusiastic user who isn’t a programmer, I would fall into this category and of course, I pay handsomely for Apple stuff.

This is quite the challenge to my entire idea of Apple’s role in modern computing. I have long acknowledged the company’s tendency to prefer more closed, all-in-one systems and consumer electronics, however I never saw Apple’s legacy as one that is negative or deliberately limiting. As Barnes (2002) puts it, Jobs (as more of a sales guy) was apparently unable to comprehend anything beyond the visual, hence the focus on iconography and desire to dumb things down for the average user.

While I am happy to remain open to this more complex idea of Apple’s role in the history of the GUI (along with Microsoft’s, which is also blamed), I do believe that there is a somewhat utopian—if not slightly elitist—element to Barnes’s (2002) argument. In his book The Story of Utopias, Mumford (1962, p. 1) defines the word utopia as the precursor to a discussion of broader society’s idealism and ideas of what it means to live a good life:

The word utopia stands in common usage for the ultimate in human folly or human hope—vain dreams of perfection in a Never-Never Land or rational efforts to remake man’s environment and his institutions and even his erring nature, so as to enrich the possibilities of the common life. Sir Thomas More, the coiner of the word, was aware of both implications… he explained that utopia might refer either to the Greek “eutopia,” which means the good place, or to “outopia,” which means no place.

I can’t help but feel that although Apple and Microsoft might have doomed the broader masses to never attaining the full knowledge of computer programming, the idea that the entire global community would be educated to the point of expert computer programming seems very hopeful and utopian. As we can see today, even with ‘dumbed-down’ GUIs and product designs, many from older generations who grew up alongside or worked during the development of computers and the Internet still struggle to navigate apps and operating systems. The view of modern computing as unnecessarily stripped back and made to be less intelligent sounds like a mildly elitist view of the entire way that people enjoy using computers today. One can be somewhat hands-off. Indeed, the way that Apple and Microsoft ended up designing such products empowered people who were most likely never going to be interested in programming the first place.

I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, Apple took the idea of the GUI and potentially limited its development as a more powerful, mainstream programmer’s tool, however it also gave people the chance to work and create art without the need to become a programmer.

It is easy to criticise people’s and companies’ roles throughout history and as a massive influence on the global community, corporations like Apple should never be immune to scrutiny. As I delve deeper into my research on podcasting, which is a result of my Apple fandom, I need to remain open to views that challenge my preconceptions of how technology works, how it has been developed and how it affects people in ways both big and small. My views on what constitutes things like computing, media consumption and podcasting in general may not align with others’.

References

  • Barnes, S.B., 2002, ‘The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction’, in Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 81–95.
  • Image credit: MacRumors (2019)
  • Mumford, L., 1962, The Story of Utopias, Viking Press.
  • Postman, N., 1993, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books, New York.

PhD Journal Entry 8: Pen(sive) Writing

Today, Natasha and I are leaving Australia for a holiday to the United States for just under a month. We’ve had this in mind for years and it’s fantastic that it’s finally happening.

Before the end of 2019, I was a little nervous about how I should approach reading for my studies while away. My primary supervisor, Kate, told me to stop worrying—as usual—suggesting that I take a complete break from research and enjoy the holiday.

Instead of formal research, she suggested that I keep a handwritten journal of our travels, noting any interesting cultural differences, social observations and experiences with media/technology. I haven’t kept a handwritten diary for years, with the recent exception of my podcasting journal, which Kate also suggested. Aside from being a nice way to remember our holiday, it should be a helpful way to collect and refine my thoughts about America as a centre for cultural production and digital communication, linking to my research focus on niche tech podcasting.

I’m looking forward to the experience of detaching more from digital technology on this trip, other than additions to this site and photo uploads to my blog Feld Notes. It’s a habit that I’m going to have to try to establish more this year: relying more on handwriting to slow down my thinking. Writing with a pen may take more time but it has its advantages.

PhD Journal Entry 7: FaceTime Saves the Day

After work today, I had my final video call for the year with my primary supervisor, Kate. (Chris is on leave.) Naturally, we had great fun dealing with various technical difficulties before starting our discussion, as we fought Google Hangouts, Slack and Cisco WebEx, which all failed to create and maintain a proper connection. FaceTime thankfully saved the day.

In the lead-up to this chat, I had been trying to consider the real value of narrative to my project—investigating the media ecology of niche tech podcasting and the stories of fans—so that I can formulate more explicit thesis questions to frame my project. I intend to use narrative enquiry (a qualitative research method) in this project down the track, as I did for my Honours research.

Two passages in Lance Strate’s (2014) article ‘Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling’ were particularly helpful in framing this discussion with my supervisor. Even if you’re not super-plugged into the topics that interest me, what he has to say about storytelling is relevant to every human being on the planet:

‘Storytelling is produced by social interaction, a product of transactions, of relationships between human beings. Narrative represents a relationship between source and receiver… It becomes easy to lose sight of this fact because we tend to focus on texts rather than contexts, to pay attention to the content and ignore the medium, which brings us back to “the medium is the message” as a call to pay attention. For this reason, Postman described the media ecology approach as context analysis (2006)’ (p. 9); and

‘The future of storytelling lies in the continued shift away from narrative as text, and towards the fuller development of narrative as environment. In conjunction with the electronic media and especially the new media, narrative will increasingly involve interaction and collaboration in its creation, and its reception, social narrative as a form, and social storytelling as an activity… These and other mutations are aspects of the continuing evolution of narrative, as it interacts with other media, at each turn releasing bursts of creativity, what McLuhan referred to as hybrid energy (1964)’ (p. 23).

The idea of ‘context over text’ is very relevant to the idea of podcasting, as podcast networks and their shows, hyperlinked show notes and supplementary social channels all contribute to a greater environment and context than a single audio stream of storytelling. Furthermore, to my mind, interaction and collaboration between both producers and listeners are integral to creating the overall narrative. There is no show if either party is missing.

As usual, Kate was exceptionally helpful in her feedback about my reading so far, my understanding of narrative and my preliminary ideas for thesis questions.

Most profoundly, she reminded me to remain personal and reflective in my work, as I tend to get a bit carried away in my reading and research. It is still early days for me and she reminded me that in addition to establishing clear research questions and citing scholarly evidence, I need to remain grounded and aware of why I am doing this in the first place. Before embarking on any extended writing that is teeming with sources, I need to write for myself and elaborate on what I know and love about podcasting… before it’s too late. Too often, apparently, people delve into research, only to become inundated with texts and forget what they loved about the topic years down the track. Right now, I have the opportunity to discuss what interests me before I’m ‘tainted’.

I am grateful to have two great supervisors in Kate and Chris: both bring very different interests to the table, but they both encourage me to question my assumptions and expectations—both about the overall research process and my own capability.

As we approach the summer holidays, it’s reassuring to know that I’m on the right track. Kate has reminded me that I need to enjoy this process and reflect on why chose to undertake it. As long as the reasons are clear in my mind, the next few years should be much easier.

PhD Journal Entry 6: Escape

In the last month, I was fortunate enough to confirm new flexible hours with my workplace, whereby I compress the same amount of working time in a fortnight from 10 working days down to nine—this has resulted in having each second Friday out of the office. Today, I decided to spend a good chunk of it at the University of Wollongong campus, with my temporary office shown above.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do this and although I’ve only had two such Fridays so far, they’ve both made a big difference in how much I can read and accomplish during the early stage of my literature review on media ecology.

Recently I’ve been reading quite a bit of Lewis Mumford, including his texts Art and Technics (1952), The Myth of the Machine (1966) and Technics and Civilization (1967). As a method of practising and revising my knowledge of media ecology, I’ve also been trying to integrate ideas from the field (where appropriate) into my Lounge Ruminator podcast. During my visit to the campus today, I finished the fourth and final text of his that I borrowed from the university library: The Story of Utopias (1962).

As I sat reading the text, which discusses the history and formation of utopias and how humans perceive and reconstruct their environments, a particular section leapt out at me. Mumford (1962, pp. 19–20) explains the concept of a ‘utopia of escape’:

In its most elemental state, this utopia of escape calls for a complete breach with the butcher, the baker, the grocer, and the real, limited, imperfect people that flutter around us… For the most part, of course, this is an idle dream, and if we do not grow out of it, we must at any rate thrust other conditions into it… when the “real” world becomes a little too hard and too sullen to face, we must take refuge, if we are to recover our balance, into another world which responds more perfectly to our deeper interests and desires—the world of literature.

Upon reading this, I instantly related to it and felt that this notion of escape encapsulated my own motivation for returning to university. Although I enjoy my work, I did feel like something was missing—a certain kind of stimulus or feeling or learning environment… really, just engaging with and diving deeply into literature.

Sitting at that table with my coffee and iPad, absorbed in a text and hearing the birds in the trees and chitter-chatter of students in various languages, it felt like I was in a kind of utopia. It felt like an intellectual escape from the routine of everyday life.

Occasionally, people ask me why I’ve decided to do a PhD or give me a look like it’s a whole lot of extra work for no apparent reward. At this stage, I’m still considering and refining the questions that I want to ask, or as my supervisor Kate says, the ‘so what?’ of it all.

I think that a big part of this is yearning for a feeling of escape and a mission beyond the routine. Like the media environments that I’ve been reading a lot about recently, the university is a different kind of environment, with its own messages, conventions and expected behaviours, whether referring to the physical environment or the cognitive environment.

Most importantly, it’s an environment in which I can be another form of myself. We all have different selves in different contexts.

The word ‘utopia’ suggests idealism and perfection but in a practical sense, the word could mean something different; it could simply mean having a sense of clarity and direction or indeed, a happy place.

So, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ve decided that doing a PhD is about finding my intellectual happy place.

PhD Journal Entry 5: Virtual Coffee with a Media Ecologist

In what seems to be a bit of a habit for me, I’ve changed the title format for entries in this PhD study journal; I did the same thing for my ‘ruminations’ on Lounge Ruminator. After a while, I start to find the titles either boring or non-specific.

After joining the Media Ecology Association (MEA) to support my research, I discovered that you can have a ‘virtual coffee’ with a media ecologist over FaceTime or Skype. This is a new service that the MEA offers, helping students, early-career scholars and even experienced researchers to engage with media ecologists and enhance their understanding of the field.

After a bit of to and fro with emails, I managed to organise a FaceTime call with MEA co-founder Lance Strate, who is an accomplished researcher, author of numerous articles and books and also a former student of Neil Postman. It was a fantastic opportunity to put a face to the name and hear directly from an influential media ecologist. He was extraordinarily helpful in prompting me to think about the history of audio and the devices that we have used to listen to it over time.

As I’m relatively new to the field of media ecology, I have much to consider in how I approach my research about podcasting as not just content, but also as a medium/platform/art form that influences, shapes and determines a very particular style and tone of content. As Postman said in 1998, ‘Technology giveth and technology taketh away’—in other words, there is always a trade-off with every medium or technology. What do podcasts offer that radio, blogging or video-streaming do not? What is it missing that these other media provide?

Making connections with researchers in a field—beyond just reading their content—gives greater context and confidence. Humans are social animals and we thrive on the ability to communicate, after all. In this case, being able to talk and have an auditory experience with a person, rather than just a visual experience with a text, was very beneficial.

PhD Study Journal: Entry 4

Yesterday I had my first joint meeting with both of my supervisors, Dr. Kate Bowles and Dr. Chris Moore. I’ve worked with Kate before (during my Honours) but this is my first time working with Chris. I can already tell that this will be a great experience, as they’re both on the same general wavelength but offer different views and research interests, which will keep me thinking and questioning my preconceptions about media and the specific area of podcasting. I need to be even more fundamental: what makes a podcast a podcast? It’s a question of both style and the specific technical implementation.

Even at this early stage, I’ve been my typical self and worried too much about my reading progress, however they were both quick to say that there’s no template for success or how to embark on such a project. It’s amazing what work deadlines and expectations can do to you; I just need to loosen up a bit and enjoy the process of learning again, which was the whole reason that I decided to do this.

PhD Study Journal: Entry 3

Today’s post is less of an academic update and more of a technical one: iPadOS has already made a significant difference to the efficiency and comfort of my PhD research. More specifically, the latest Ulysses update (with support for multiple windows / app instances) and broader mouse support in the system under Accessibility > Assistive Touch has made writing and editing soooooo much easier.

I had become accustomed to using touch and my keyboard’s arrow keys exclusively for navigating sheets and editing, however the ability to manipulate text indirectly and customise mouse buttons for multitasking has been incredibly helpful.

As I did in my undergraduate and Honours years, I believe that I still take way too long to finish reading and jotting down notes from any book or article, although at least now the writing part in my apps will be quicker.

Finally, my somewhat ‘modarn’ and haphazard iPadOS desktop set-up is complete with a mouse. Yay!

PhD Study Journal: Entry 2

I’m currently reading a fascinating book by renowned media ecologist Neil Postman, which is called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). In the text, Postman explains how technology has come to rule our lives, business and social institutions. We have made the shift from tool-using cultures, to technocracies and finally to technopolies.

A particular point that has leapt out at me is how he describes the transformation of information. The direct quote below is incredibly relevant to today, particularly considering the fact that it was written well before the rise of today’s dominant social media platforms.

Check this out: ‘Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it yet another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e. information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose’ (Postman, 1993, pp. 69–71).

This perfectly describes platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; information and content just keeps flowing… and for what? What does it all mean? It’s impossible to actually consume everything.

To me, services like Micro.blog do not yet fall into this category of informational garbage, nor do podcasts, for which I only have a limited number of feeds. For those who thrive in these spaces (both as producers and consumers), however, it will be important not to overload and repeat the mistakes of the very recent past. Let’s stay focused and meaningful in our online behaviour.

PhD Study Journal: Entry 1

Wooo! I finally finished reading Mapping Media Ecology: Introduction to the Field, which is a comprehensive text on the history, purpose and contributions of media ecology as a ‘metadiscipline’. Whilst I found a variety of references for my initial thesis proposal, I felt that it was important to tackle the what, how and why of the field. There are so many specific texts, heuristics and research approaches from numerous scholars that it wouldn’t have made sense to dive into journals and essays without getting a grip on the terminology first. It took me forever to write down copious notes but I now have the base knowledge to continue. (So far, Ulysses has been an invaluable tool for building my notes in Markdown and adding keywords. I hope that it will make it easier to track things over time.)