Monday, February 04, 2019

Relevance and morals as a modern researcher

When we submit applications, we are always told to tell the world why our research is important. How is it relevant? And I am always at loss of words. Not because I think what I do is irrelevant, but because I think it is all extremely relevant, and not seeing that is really not a problem I can solve. So, let's take a step back and look at the problem from another angle.

First, I need to simplify, which means picking one of the 500 reasons why I think what I do is incredibly interesting and important. So instead of listing all the ways in which studying games, play and cyberculture is important, I have to find one. My current most important reason for studying this is: it plays with our emotions.  That is just standard rhetorics though. Aristotle was talking about how rhetoric plays with our emotions, so why is it still important? Well, rhetoric never stopped playing with our emotions, and we have not become smarter about it, quite the opposite. Our emotions are now being played with at a rate we have never before experienced. Our heart-strings are constantly being tugged, our anger stoked, our sense of humour tickled, and somebody are making that their main business. The contemporary currency of mass media is not just our eyeballs, which have been sold regularly for generations, but our reactions, connections, networks, and emotional impact.

So next, I need to figure out which agency might care about this. If what I wanted to do was to sell a business idea about how to do all of this better, then I would probably have had a long range of businesses to work with - and I would have made a lot more money than I do as a lowly scholar. But I have this thing about not just having my fun - I also care about how I have my fun. So I want to use this knowledge about how emotion is currently bought and sold in a way that lets the society in general benefit, and not just, for instance, Google or Facebook (who have become super-rich off our emotions already).

That is where it all stops. Because I have this tiny little thing that I know a lot about, there is a sea of businesses who want to make it into a better business plan, and I want to give it away for just the price of developing it into a working model together with somebody who will use it to counter all of those commercial players. I am sure the persons I could talk to exist. I am also certain they are looking for somebody like me. But instead of matching up us, application processes are basically working by the garbage bin principle.

In organisational theory, a generation ago now, we learned that in any organisation there are a stack of problems, and a stack of solutions. They all get thrown into the same bin, then they get shook up a bit. Afterwards we go through, and start trying to match them up. It doesn't matter if the problems and the solutions match perfectly as long as they kind of match. And that is the problem with any research application process. I am at any given point trying to guess the problems in the bin, and then I try to write an application that matches the problems I think have been thrown into the bin. A lot of other people do the same, of course, and it's all matched up by a bunch of people who never asked the questions, nor wrote the answers.

Here is another answer I don't have: I don't know what a perfect application process would be. I do think it is a pretty impossible task to ask me to guess how to be relevant to every possible funding source out there. And to be honest - I don't even want to. But if you are interested in a person who knows a bit about how our emotions are being manipulated through digital media, well, if you have a good question, let's see if I can make a plan to come up with a good answer. Who knows, we might be able to avoid the garbage bin altogether.