Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Moving towards my dissertation...

I've had a number of thoughts regarding my upcoming dissertation. I'll compress these thoughts down to two categories: 1- What the hell are we doing?, and 2- How the hell are we doing it?

What the hell are we doing?

In my own particular discipline there have been a number of recent innovations. It seems that those around me have really taken on a post-modern bent and have been aggressive in pursuing the implications of social structure and language on information seeking. Fine. I feel that we have, however, lost something: the problem. I'm not too sure why we're doing this type of research. To me--perhaps it's my training as an engineer--this process seems like the worst sort of hubris.

I recently came across something that could act as a guide for my own research. Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor at Yale and editor extrordinaire, has a very interesting bio that he appends to the work that he edits. It sums up his reseach interests and focus: understanding child mental disorders and eliminating them. Sounds good. The problem is short and to the point and it avoids the problems inherent in conflating the research question with a research method. So now I just have to find a problem (I think I've got one) and find a way to address it.

How the hell are we doing it?

With the turn to post-modern and language/discourse based approaches to research we seem to have reified these concepts into a sort of totality that both guides and limits our research [Turk says something about this is an odd research paper on architectural and engineering forms where he cites Heidegger...]. It's a compelling argument: since thought is based on language, and thought is a prerequisite for seeking and processing information, therefore language should be the basis for our modus operandi--indeed modus vivendi--of library practice!

There is, however, a whole different way of thinking that is beyond language. In one of Petroski's books he recounts an anecdote of two individuals discussing the shape of a particular object. The shape has no name but one of the parties says something like: "You know the shape of a cranskshaft... that shape!" Okay, I'll admit that the word "crankshaft" invokes the image of the object in question but the ensuing conversation was not necessarily due to the word cranskshaft but rather the individuals' ability to mentally see and manipulate the object. This whole visual aspect of thought seems to be largely ignored in our conception of information seeking. Perhaps we've become blinded by the very text-ness of our primary charges: books.

For engineers, this visual mode of thinking is crucial. Petroski recounts the experiences of a number of Victorian engineers who struggled for weeks with images cascading through their brains. Indeed, the documentation of these images seems to have been an important element in the formation of engineering practice and design. Some important works include the sketchbooks of the early cathedral architects (e.g., Villard de Honnecourt [c.1230-1235]); the Theatrum Machinarum of Besson [1578], Böckler [1661], and Leupold [1724]; and the collections of "mechanical movements" such as Henry T. Brown's famous work of 1871. Even the encyclopedie of Diderot and d'Alembert--or at least the plates--were important contributions to the visual records of engineers. [On two separate occassions I've seen a remarkable early plate depicting the process of pin-making as being crucial for Adam Smith's conception of capitalism. Unfortunately, two plates don't match are from different works!]

I personally suspect that these classical works found their physical realization in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900 in Paris [Engineers are always keen on--and depend upon--their prototypes as revealed in the work of Bechky and Henderson]. The most famous description of the Gallery is from Henry Adams who remarked (in the 'board's choice' as best nonfiction work in the Modern Library):

"Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years' pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new."

So where is the visual record of information seeking practices? Where are those design patterns that we can just mix and match? How do we address that visual part of the brain that seems to be so overlooked in our current research? Why do we instantly run to prototypes and physical manifestations of our work without the tools to depict the underlying processes?

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