digital implications,  digital scholarship,  higher ed

Wanted – Frontier psychiatrists

Back when the internet (or at least the web) was still relatively new, it caused a lot of reaction. People dismissed it (it’s the new CB fad), pointed out it’s limitations (it’s so slow), or decried it as the portent of doom (the end of universities). Treading between these predictions and prophecies was a tricky business. It seems obvious now that it would go on to impact almost every aspect of society, but that really wasn’t the case back in the late 90s. Any, none, or a mixture of the futures so confidently outlined by detractors and evangelists seemed possible on any given day.

This is fairly normal for any new tech, and healthy scepticism is a reliable default response (I mean, I’m not regretting dismissing Bored Ape NFTs as a ridiculous con). But occasionally one comes along like the internet that represents a monumental shift in just about everything. During this time I’m smug enough to say that I at least ‘got it’, where ‘it’ is the likely implications for higher education (lucky timing on my part). What I found valuable over the next decade those people who found interesting ways to develop the technology, and put it to useful application in education. But alongside these I also came to value those writers who helped interpret what it meant for us, for people, for education, who helped asked the question “what does this all mean?”. In terms of the internet itself, danah boyd did a lot of this early work, and then in education examples of these types of writers would be Kate Bowles, Maha Bali, Jim Groom, Dave Cormier, Bonnie Stewart.

There’s a weirdly catchy track by the Avalanches called “Frontier Psychiatrist“, and I think that’s a good label for what the function these types of thinkers undertake in a new setting. It has a whole Star Trek feel as these technology spaces open up – at the frontiers, settlers on a new planet. What does that mean for the things we value? What does that do to us? It’s worth remembering that people die in frontiers, and often perform acts of cruelty (particularly to indigenous people). It is not all glory and romance and looking wistful in large scenery. There is pain and discomfort here too and navigating that is no easy task. It requires therapy and guidance.

I did some of that thinking too, with digital scholarship, but I feel we’re now entering a new phase of frontiership. Generative AI seems to be having a similar ripple through in all sectors and causing many of the similar reactions we saw with the early internet. If you feel like you want to run away from it or pretend it’s not happening, I sympathise. But we’ll need those frontier psychiatrists as we negotiate this frontier, so look out for them and cherish them when you find them.

In the meantime this reminded me that about 13 years ago I made a video for Jim celebrating his 1000th post on bavatuesdays, with Frontier Psychiatrist as the soundtrack. It’s quite bad, but has a certain ‘web 2.0’ charm:


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