I am now a 2nd year Ph.D. student. ūüėĮ Boy did that first year fly by. And boy did the summer disappear.

Lesson learned: “summer break” does not really mean vacation. I travelled a ton and had amazing experiences, but each adventure held a very specific, usually research-related purpose. That holds its own sense of exhilaration, if not rest. I finally have a clearer sense of direction and trajectory for my life, and as part of that, I was able to spend my summer fleshing out some of my research in concrete ways.

Earlier this summer I shared my trip to Houston and NASA Space Center (which is hanging in there despite Harvey). Right after I got back to Denver, I had another first: my first Comic Con.

I was presenting on two panels at the Denver Comic Con. The first was part of the scholarly/lit track Page 23, where I gave a talk on¬†HBO’s¬†Westworld and Manifest Destiny. (I argue that the show ultimately acts as a critique of Manifest Destiny.)

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The second was on a fan panel celebrating Syfy’s show¬†The Expanse. Each presentation was drastically different. My¬†Westworld talk was much like a traditional academic conference presentation, though my audience included non-academic but passionate fans–making for some fantastic discussion. The fan panel…was so different! Fan panels are loosely structured and designed to engage one’s audience in a more general, yet still thoughtful and enthusiastic, conversation about why we collectively love the show (i.e. no formal, planned talks). By the end, everyone should have a deeper appreciation and love for the show. This panel was an absolute blast–us panelists got to interrupt each other, argue about characters, and hear new thoughts and insights from the audience. Plus the chair of our panel, Michael Pea, managed to get one of¬†The Expanse actors, Cas Anvar, to record a personal greeting to our audience.

Then the very next day after DCC ended, Josh and I were back on a plane (actually three), headed to Cape Town, South Africa. I still consider Cape Town home, but this was my first time heading back. . . on a research grant. Essentially, I was “home” on a business trip. That was a bit surreal, and it included my first chance getting to drive on the other side of the road. (I only hit one unfortunate bird . . . well he hit me. Flew right into me on the highway and gave me quite a shock.)¬†

So why was I in South Africa? What kind of “research” was I doing?

Well, technically, I was really there to do¬†pre-research. Since my dissertation will be centered on South African youth’s use of popular digital media, I really want to be in conversation with South African scholars doing similar work to my own. So I set out to meet with as many South African media & culture scholars as I could in three weeks. My trip took me to 3 cities and 3 universities: the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University in Grahamstown, and the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban.

I lost count of how many faculty and graduate students I met, and I still need to write up my report on what I did and learned. Returning to the US, I felt both inspired and overwhelmed. There is so much yet to be explored and studied, in regards to media, within South Africa. This affords me a wide frontier of possibilities but that simultaneously makes it much harder to narrow down specific projects. The good thing is that I’m only a 2nd year Ph.D, so I have time to figure things out. And now I have a network of incredible individuals to mentor and guide me. (Several of whom immediately took it upon themselves to assign me homework!)¬†

So right now I’m trying to diligently read everything to which I was pointed during my trip. And I am also trying to get my head back into the game that is fall semester. (Thank goodness for Labor Day.) I am teaching two recitations at CU Boulder¬†for a course called “Conversation” about discourse & democracy and an online high school course on visual literacy called “I Spy”. I also have 3 graduate seminars on Global Media & Culture; Digital Games & Society; and Foundations of Critical Theory to keep me busy.

So there finally is my belated update. I had a couple important deadlines that I’ve been feverishly working to complete, so I had to temporarily demote High and Low¬†on my list of priorities.¬†Next few posts will switch back to the standard critique and analysis. Josh and I have been playing a few new video games this summer, and I’m looking forward to writing about both. See you all then.

Amazon recently had its massive annual Prime sale–the Black Friday of summer or as some have dubbed it, Christmas in July. Among all the books, movies, clothing, gadgets, and electronics you can purchase on their site, perhaps Amazon’s greatest pride and joy is their own invention: the Amazon Echo.

The Echo is a monolithic device reminiscent of Kubrick’s¬†2001 Space Odyssey–a black pillar to erect in the center of one’s home that is always listening. If you want to play music, check the weather, calculate a measurement conversion for a recipe, all you need to do is ask Alexa, the genie in this bottle.¬†

Google, not to be outdone in the quest to control all the technology in our lives, has a similar device on the market: the Google Home.

Both devices offer increasing convenience for the modern chaotic life. As someone who bakes quite a bit, I love the idea of being able to verbally inquire after the next ingredient for my recipe when my hands are covered in flour. For parents with small children in need of extra arms, no doubt these kind of devices also come in handy. And, in truth, how different are these devices from the Siri and Google that already live in our smartphones? We have already transitioned into a world where we talk to our devices and expect a proportionate response in word or deed. 

But is this really a world we want to live in? Is convenience the framework we wish to structure the future around? It’s sorely tempting, but I would answer no–and urge you to do the same.

In a world of listening devices, everything we say in the comfort and privacy of our homes is picked up by these devices, with the potential of being recorded. There is already evidence to show that what we say to our companions and family members–not directly to the device–is being used to customize the advertising we see as we surf the web.¬†(Listen to this Note to Self episode to learn more.)¬†

While most of what we say at home might be quite innocuous, suppose one of these devices picks up a casual conversation in which you speak bitterly about an acquaintance who is then subsequently found murdered. What if that conversation becomes admissible in a court of law? As we know from experience with texting, digital devices have a hard time providing an emotional context and nuance when converting a verbal statement into a written one–even with the use of emojis and gifs. And this scenario is not simply hypothetical–Amazon has already been subpoenaed to release Echo data in this murder case. (Amazon refused but the defendant himself later agreed to release the data to the police.) And then, of course, there is the case of the San Bernardino shooters in which the authorities tried to get Apple to provide access to the shooters’ phones.

Even as these corporations are currently fighting to maintain our privacy, I find it scary to think that our data is in the hands of massive companies that are shaping the world’s future. They may not be the governmental authorities but Amazon, Google, and Apple are powerful authorities over our lives in other ways. They already have so much access to our privates lives through our email inboxes, our devices, and our shopping baskets–why would we want to invite them more directly into our homes?

For those who reluctantly respond with, “well we’re in this far, we might as well just accept the state of the world, give up and enjoy the convenience of such devices,” I disagree. We are not so far that we can’t take a stand and begin to shift the needle back to a place in which we as individuals can begin to own our personal information and data again. Choosing not to own an Echo or a Home is a place to start making that shift. Baby steps. Baby steps.

I’m not the first person to discuss this issue, so here’s a few links to some great podcasts and articles that also discuss this topic. If you own or don’t own one of these devices, I’d love to hear why you chose to buy or not buy one, and if you have one, what do you think now that you have it in your home? Do you disagree with my argument? If so, why?

The featured image is courtesy of Matthew Henry

After the past several weeks keeping up a steady pace of constant output, I’m in slow-collapse mode. I just finished putting together a paper that is due for a July 10 conference deadline, and I am breathing a deep sigh of relief. I’ve been scrambling to research and write it while also preparing for my trip to Texas, my two presentations at Denver Comic Con, and my trip to South Africa. Well, I’m currently in South Africa so everything else had come and gone successfully (to my relief), but this one last paper was being pesky. I’ve been feverishly working on it in airports, on planes, in bed . . . wherever I get a few moments to focus. But it’s mostly done, and now I get to relax a little more and focus on why I’m in South Africa. (A topic I’ll cover in a later post.)

As I mentioned above, I was recently in Texas with two objectives. Primarily, I was attending a conference in Waco as part of a teaching fellowship I am in. Since I had to fly to Texas anyway, I decided to rent a car in Waco and drive down to Houston–to pay a visit to NASA.¬†

One of the real-to-goodness Baylor bears.

While the core of my research is still focused on South African national identity and popular media, I have recently embarked on a side project that also involves my love of media and post-colonial theory. I have been looking at the rhetoric and philosophy around why we, as humanity and as particular nations, choose to explore space. This is a project partially fueled by the science fiction I read, which is where I started to think about how many of the topics I was studying in post-colonial studies pertained to our current extra-planetary actions. We talk about space as “the final frontier” or as a storehouse of potential resources. We speculate on how we might colonize Mars or some other exo-planet, which might serve as a back-up plan once we’ve destroyed Earth. When I hear such statements, all the warning bells go off for me because I immediately think about how Western Europeans colonized the New World. For those of us who are Caucasian, our ancestors said pretty much the same sorts of things, completely disregarding the indigenous people and animals already living on the land and with very little respect for the land itself. Such an exploitative attitude has continued to shape many of the political, economic, and ecological problems we see today.

I don’t propose to have all the answers, but I do think we should be asking more ethical and philosophical questions that challenge our intentions. For instance, who or what gives us the right to land on Mars and turn it into a Terran colony? That’s a¬†very messy question, and one that people will no doubt disagree fervently over, but that discussion needs to be taking place and in the public arena. Perhaps we need to slow down the technological and scientific development for a moment to first hold these discussions and come to some tentative agreements or compromises.

Valkyrie

As part of this research, I’m doing a number of different mini-projects, such as analyzing news articles and feature films; surveying students preparing for work in space-related fields; and interviewing various key professionals. Earlier this year, I met Dan Huot, the NASA Public Affairs Officer responsible for all PR related to the International Space Station, and he invited me to visit him at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. So I did! It was a pretty incredible visit, complete with crawling into the cockpit of a space shuttle, meeting the lovely Valkyrie, and strolling among the desks of Mission Control while the ISS astronauts completed an assignment. My trip concluded with an official interview with Dan, the first of hopefully many fascinating conversations with a diverse group of individuals thinking about space from quite distinct perspectives.

Fan-girling hard at this moment!

What are your thoughts on space travel? Does it thrill you? Concern you? What do you think the public’s involvement should be in the decisions around how, when, and why we visit other planets? Please do share as I really am interested to hear the spectrum of perspectives!

Next up: Denver Comic Con!

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