Questioning the value of PhD Research.

I’m flabbergasted or maybe just aghast, €349 or $483 (or even 21,476.54 Indian rupees) was the cost to attend this weekend’s Dublin web summit (http://www.dublinwebsummit.com/ ) – with no specific mention of electronic writing, digital poetry, computer mediated narratives, hypertext, or network centric creativity to be found on any or indeed any individual agenda – and there was supposedly a waiting list ? I know two of the guys speaking and I’d gladly pay to hear either or both of them. (“Remember the stage door sign at the lyric theatre: do not ask for passes for your friends, if they won’t pay to see you, who will ?”) However…

Putting that in some kinda perspective €349 is, for the majority of workers across the globe, almost an annual wage and approximately €349 more than I have personally earned since I decided to embark on my self-funded full-time PhD, which itself roughly converts to seventeen months of personal near pennilessness so far. Thus a wholly ephemeral event priced at that level needs to deliver something really special, solid, relevant and hopefully actionable. I know many would correctly observe at this point that a resourceful, talented and connected individual like myself, despite being seemingly mired deep within my PhD, should not have any major difficulty finding a supplementary income or affording that surely meagre sum, even in a recessionary economy with 450K people out of work. As Happy Heaney used to say, “Anyone who wants a job can get a job” as his smiling brown Crombie trundled from the dole to the pub, via the bookies.

Maybe he was right and it’s still true, I have indeed declined several genuine opportunities to earn hard cash, (also had funding/grant apps turned down too) two of my many many flaws are my penitent for focusing my attention on obscure, very early stage or experimental projects (pre-pre-feasibility) – while actually enjoying my life and its many wondrous and humorous dimensions, not least the serendipity of occasional buckshot research phases that fully compensate for my current lack of overinflated branded goods.

They reckoned in MS that around five simultaneous projects were manageable – depends on scale, complexity, the person, the teams and respective QTC triangles, give me ten and I’ll struggle through to exhaustion, one to three and I’m utterly bored. Life’s lessons eventually beat some sense into us and maybe like me you may come to understand that the pursuit of cash, power, even happiness, as an individual end in itself, is actually entirely futile, everything and every action has a price, activities consistently focused on money or ‘success’ often prove to be the most costly in human terms and human costs are without doubt thee most expensive.

A widely acknowledged desirable human resource is peace of mind but peace of mind is not an actual tangible commodity, it cannot be purchased or traded and perhaps ironically still requires quite a significant effort to attain and retain. It can cost much more that any project’s success or failure, it teaches value(s) in ways that seem pedagogically and philosophically impossible. The seemingly irrelevant impermanent and transient nature of our existence suggests that very little of what we physically make from our spectacular individual endeavours (the first chapter of John Bart’s Funhouse springs to mind) actually amount to a hill of beans. Accordingly when individuals somehow beat the odds and enjoy some odd modicum of success in terms of positively impacting the lives of others, then those others, quite naturally, want to know how it was achieved, on such simple notions are conferences and collaborations and summits born. Success breeds success we have been led to believe. So maybe listening to such tales of commercial success will have a similar effect. Even if adding up all of the summit tales still doesn’t deal with my specific research interests.

Starting Monday next, I’m off to the inaugural meeting of TCD/UCD innovation academy students, I’m looking forward to it, as a writer / researcher, I can get too comfortable in my own company, as a geeky driven creative techno digital poetic playwright screenfreak gamer experimenter nerdy type serial entrepreneur; I frequently drift beyond ‘conventional’ and just end up trying to straighten the multidimensional conceptual spaghetti. I am privileged to be able to enjoy the virtual company of so many talented, stimulating, innovative and forward thinking creative people, I sometimes forget what standard or normal is actually supposed to mean, many of those treasured personal connections are based around shared interests in the aforementioned writing, digital creativity, learning, teaching, living, and trying to understand and enjoy all aspects of those activities in the context of a broader fuller stable existence. I’m anticipating a comparable ‘like minds’ or ‘similar souls’ scenario promising to arise next Monday, yes however implausible, while I can’t really see the innovation academy being chock a block with Creative Writing PhD Candidates (with thirty years work experience), I can hope that it will contain some genuine people who are interested in collectively exploring ‘stuff’. Having attended various types and styles of conference, seminar and workshop over the years and across four continents, I know the most valuable things to bring with me are an open mind, enthusiasm and few expectations.

When framing my enthusiasm, I’m susceptible to conjectural comparisons of what value my research outputs might actually have, particularly when viewed alongside more scientifically based disciplines producing empirical charts or graphs, product prototypes or tangible solidity. It replays that age old artificial schism between humanities and science, and a current dilemma that constricts some of the more myopic educational establishments, its back to that old idea of shelf preservation, the politics of accepted rhetoric and vice versa, some perceived contamination at the edges of the academy by disruptive technologies, hyper-attention, and the incorrect compartmentalization of emerging (read not yet fully acknowledged, understood or absorbed) transdisciplinary or digital practises.

Therefore its edifying to acknowledge that the value of my own research ( into new digital forms, through the literary lens of the UCD English department) cannot reside so much in the quantization or qualification of specific research outputs on some scale relative to such tangible solidity, of absolute paramount importance is my personal learning and further specialization which in turn leads to that requisite unique contribution to the current body of human knowledge. Now that idealism alone must be worth 21K rupees, but the genuine perplexing aspect that arises is that while the main body of my academic research will exceed or conform to very standard or conservative parameters, intellectual measures and accepted quality specifications only I alone can attribute a true value to it, and only in relation to what it provides to me.

Value is that attributed or agreed property, that is until you have to invest a minimum of €20K plus three to four years of your life into something which, faultlessly, few family or friends are that interested or invested in. The value becomes entirely personal and when occasions like the Dublin web summit come along, while they are interesting distractions, outside their social function, the have little intrinsic value to add to my own interest or activity.