All These Gandalfs

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Or how we all want to stay home instead of go on adventures

I wrote this introductory bit for my dissertation and i’m not sure it will stick with it so I thought i’d put it here.

I think a lot about the book The Hobbit (1937). I think about this book because it centers on a stubborn, not-so-young guy having his life toppled by someone who knew more about the world than he did. Bilbo Baggins is settling into a life in the place he was born much like like all of the other people in his village. Unbeknownst to him, some immortal academic angel from far off places named Gandalf decides that he needs usurp his life give him a new one. This new life would be filled with adventure, danger, mystery, magic, elves, goblins, dragons, and dwarves because Gandalf had an idea that the world would probably need Bilbo for something. For many of us, we want to be Bilbo before he met Gandalf. Adventure is uncomfortable because adventure changes us and in changing us, the world itself changes. Yet the world needs us, our perspective, and we need to hear from all those elves, goblins, dragons and dwarves.

There are endless Gandalfs who seek to destabilize normalcy so that we may correct some far off wrong many of us have never considered. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the white moderate who just wants things to stay the way they are. The writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, and countless other declarations of war, peace, surrender, marriage, divorce, death, and life all center on some act that threatens to disrupt us at our most comfortable. The fear of change and discomfort keeps us from looking out at the world these Gandalfs see.

I think about these things not because I want to be a Gandalf. I do not seek to create some incredible change in the world. Instead, I think about them because of all those things the Gandalfs have done, nearly all of them have ended back in that space of peace and steady, predictable living. Humans do not change that often, if at all. One of the most poignant aspects of my upbringing as a Sociologist was coming upon this quote:

“If one compares our culture with that of a hundred years ago, then one may surely say — subject to many individual exceptions — that the things that determine and surround our lives, such as tools, means of transport, the products of science, technology and art, are extremely refined. Yet individual culture, at least in the higher strata, has not progressed at all to the same extent; indeed, it has even frequently declined. This does not need to be shown in detail” George Simmel — The Philosophy of Money

I have thought about this quote every day since I read it in 2004. Fourteen years later, I have begun to understand how and why we need to fight against becoming pre-Gandalf Bilbo Baggins. Instead, we need to emulate Gandalf by tricking someone into action and hoping for the best. I set out to write this dissertation as Bilbo while my adviser — Gandalf that she is — hoped for the best.

I myself had been tricked into a PhD program with the promise of education, of possibility, and perhaps some treasure. Though, in academia’s case treasure is not usually gold but the knowledge we find along the way. As I have gone on my adventure, I saw Dwarves, their quests, and these wise beings all discussing the world. Yet much like Bilbo, each aspect of my journey was bounded by metaphorical and literal boundaries. I am neither dwarf nor an adventurer.

The College of Information Sciences and Technology that I enrolled in is a physical building that is separated from nearly all the rest of campus save a few tragic fraternity houses. I have never spoken to a Chemistry Professor. I have never spoken to a physics faculty member. In fact, aside from my desire to play board games, I would never have met anyone except people who quibbled over the social life of information. Academia as a whole is filled with endless Bilbos who have not met Gandalf. In many ways, we socialize into a group, into a discipline, into a way of thinking. And there we stay, under the hill in our borders in countless meetings, second breakfasts, and banquets at conferences. But there are other beings other than humans, we create them every day and often forget about them.

Designed objects like information communication technologies tend to serve as boundary maintainers. As boundary maintenance devices, these technologies perform duties that are assigned by other humans. They do little other than what humans have been doing themselves. Yet because these technologies maintain memory, what they do ends up shocking us. It is in shocking us that we seek the comfort under the hill. This has consequences as technology is often blamed for creating the problems that technology points out about us. The problems of the world then become the problems of technology. We hoist our collective problems onto technology while simultaneously robbing technology of its creator. I began to think about my dissertation research from this point of origin.

When I was a new PhD student, I was shocked at how little humans were considered by designers of socio-technical systems at the iSchool I enrolled in. I was equally shocked by how little the space I came from considered technology. These two acts of ignoring the other point to a space that needs to be adventured in. It is a space filled with invisible objects that are constantly tempered by an equally invisible desire for predictable normalcy. Technology is consistently easier to use, easier to understand, and more narrowly focused on specific tasks. Technology, much like fashion, has come to identify others as belonging to our space.

But something else is happening as boundaries become more well-defined. They are also becoming more fragile. It would seem that Simmel’s quote is starting to break down. It would seem that instead of needing endless Gandalfs to push us along, we are starting to push ourselves to change. Human beings are changing and we are changing because the objects we use, the technologies we create, are themselves becoming integrated with society in a way that has not been accomplished before. It is a stupendous occurrence with consequences we cannot yet comprehend. We cannot comprehend that change because while technology is new, we still study technology use with the same techniques that we have used for hundreds of years.

This realization came at the mid-point of the development of this dissertation. I was not going to simply perform a test to show all of these things. I was not going to ask a question and then seek an answer. Instead, I was going to develop some way of thinking about technology, of asking questions of technology, that did not rely on centuries old assumptions about the makeup of society. It was at this point, that I rejected that quote of Simmel. In doing so, I found that I was free to consider use from mico- meso- or macro- levels simultaneously. It was just a matter of finding the right objects to observe and the right way to consider them.