Saturday, 26 October 2013

Einstein's Nightmare

I recently presented a paper at Professor John O’Neill’s Festschrift (literally ‘festival of words’) at York University in Toronto.

Professor O’Neill remains a key figure in sociological theory and his work continues to influence my own thinking. Beyond his research influence, his teaching and supervision inspired my own career and taught me everything I know about what it means to be a teacher. For many teachers, the work of teaching remains about their own journey and the position of the student is largely incidental, but Professor O'Neill taught me that a different approach is possible, where the role of the teacher is to create a psychological space fit for real learning, where the student feels safe, secure, and centrally wants to learn, understand, and express themselves. I have since theorised this approach through the work of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who wrote about the creative space in early childhood and I remain indebted to Professor O'Neill for creating this space for me and inspiring me to think for myself during my undergraduate days. I am almost certain that I would not be an academic without Professor O'Neill's influence and I remain eternally grateful for his gift of thought.

Inspired by the tradition of Canadian media theory, and particularly thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan and Arthur Kroker, who have made Canada the home of media analysis, my paper, 'Einstein’s Nightmare', addressed Professor O'Neill's own work on the mass media, which is very much part of this rich history of Canadian media theory. Centrally, I explored the idea of social relations, social responsibility, and what I call social debt through reference to the popular internet meme, 'Einstein's Nightmare' which appeared early in 2013.

As the image to the right of your screen shows, the meme itself concerns the impact of social media, and centrally new media gadgets, on social relations. My key point was that new media potentially undermines social relations and social responsibility and introduces a new form of what I call 'sociality at a distance'. Beyond making this argument, the aim of my paper was to contrast this idea of sociability, which is thinned out, weakly defined, and absolutely provisional, with the mode of relationality defined by gifting, generosity, and responsibility, which characterised my experience of Professor O'Neill's teaching and supervision. 

I will present a different version of this paper at the Keele Sociology seminar next week – 30th October – but if you would like to read my discussion of the relationship between the classic media myth, Plato’s Cave, which Professor O'Neill explores in his book of the same name, and Einstein’s Nightmare, you can visit my home page on the website. I include my paper on this site in draft form. Full versions of the paper will be available later in the year when I publish the piece in article form.

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