To PhD or not to PhD

Thinking playfully

So, thinking freely, what’s the PhD about then, and who cares?

It’s really about helping people to see systems. To many people, systems are invisible. UV rays are invisible but they will still burn you, and so will systems if you’re not careful. At the same time, since social systems are really just made of people, when ‘the system’ does something to do us, it is really people who are doing it. And this also means that each of us is part of systems that do things to other people. This raises questions of responsibility, especially when things go wrong. Because most of us are not good at thinking about systems, when something goes boink, we are usually tempted to assign responsibility either to an individual, or to ‘the system’. This doesn’t help us very much if we want to understand what went wrong, or how and why it happened. Instead of looking at objects (this person, this group, this system), we should be looking at the relations between objects. It is how the objects relate to each other that makes a system. If we understand how the different parts of a system relate to each other, then we can act to change things for the better.

4 | The Game is Afoot

In hindsight, it’s been an uneven few weeks, as it always is when I’m busy rearranging mental furniture. Having reached an impasse with the PhD at the end of last year, I more or less stopped thinking about it and gave myself permission to let it go until I had reason to revisit it. That left a bit of a hole, which I didn’t notice until that familiar you-aren’t-doing-enough-with-your-talents feeling crept up on me one weekend not long ago. Even though I hadn’t actually been doing the PhD, clearly it was occupying some space bubbling away in the background. Now it was gone. And if I don’t have a slow-cooking problem on the backburner, I tend to start climbing the walls. It was time to revisit the ingredients.

3 | The Magic of Conversation

3 | The Magic of Conversation

I first met Terry Pratchett in 1997, on his book signing tour for Feet of Clay, book number 19 in his Discworld series, in which events take place in a flat world balanced on the backs of four giant elephants which in turn stand atop a giant turtle swimming through space. Aside from this fact, the presence of magic and a proliferation of wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, werewolves and other creatures, however, the world of the Disc is not so very different from our own. This is because the Discworld books are primarily stories about people – what they’re like, how they think, what they’re afraid of, the kinds of things they believe, the follies they fall into and the things they think they can get away with when no-one is looking.

2 | You May Say I'm a Dreamer

2 | You May Say I'm a Dreamer

Last time we talked, I said that whatever project I ended up pursuing next would probably combine technology, education and politics in some way. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the last part of that. In just what way are we talking, in fact? I could combine technology, education and politics in a PhD, but the fact that we’re talking at all means I clearly have some concerns about that idea. It would be fair to say that I have some issues with the whole academic path, in fact. What’s that about and why does it matter just now?

1 | Taking Stock

1 | Taking Stock

My heroes keep dying.

I’ve lost two this year. Terry Pratchett. Oliver Sacks. A few years ago I lost Steve Jobs. We all did. The year before, we all lost Tony Judt, even if we didn’t all know who he was. That’s the thing about heroes, they take a little light out of the world with them when they go.

What is a hero? I don’t have a monopoly on definitions, but by my reckoning a hero is someone who makes us feel better about the world just for the knowledge that they are in it. It’s comforting to think that somewhere out there, someone has a good reply to the chaotic and meandering struggle that is human existence, and they are living it good and hard with everything they’ve got.

Perhaps it’s comforting in part because if someone else clearly has it figured out, there’s less pressure on us. So when a hero is ripped from the world, what remains? Little comfort. Less light. More pressure.

It’s a sobering thought that the great lights of the older generation keep going out. I suppose it’s like moving up to ticking a new age box on a form. We keep moving through them until eventually there’s no boxes left between us and the end of the page and the realisation that oh fuck, we’re it.

Am I it?