Author Archives: jharris124

Our Newest PhD: Dr. Sarah Whyte!

Screenshot 2018-07-18 14.45.49Congratulations to UWaterloo English’s newest PhD graduate, Dr. Sarah Whyte. On July 17th she successfully defended “The Rhetorical Life of Surgical Checklists: A Burkean Analysis with Implications for Knowledge Translation.”
Screenshot 2018-07-18 11.18.11Sarah (above left) was supervised by Dr. Jay Dolmage (above centre)–note how genuinely happy a supervisor looks after a successful defense? Committee members were Dr. Randy Harris and Dr. Catherine Schryer.; thank you to Dr. Kathryn Plaisance of Knowledge Integration (above right) who served as internal-external examiner, and Dr. Carolyn Rae Miller, of North Carolina State University, the external examiner.

Dr. Whyte’s work has appeared in Social Science & Medicine; Advances in Health Sciences Education; Cognition, Technology & Work, and elsewhere. A description of her dissertation follows:

The Rhetorical Life of Surgical Checklists: A Burkean Analysis with Implications for Knowledge Translation
This dissertation uses the terms of Kenneth Burke’s dramatism to identify rhetorical aspects of surgical team checklists as they have been promoted, performed, studied, and surveilled. I argue that these terms can help to account both for the rapid uptake of checklists into policy and for their more variable effects and uptake into practice. I develop this argument by analyzing a large archive of texts published between 1999 and 2016, including popular media, news coverage, promotional campaigns, primary research, and other forms of scholarship. These published texts are considered alongside ethnographic fieldnotes from a study in which I collaborated to design, introduce, and evaluate an early version of a preoperative checklist at four Canadian hospitals. My analyses are guided heuristically by the first principles and central terms of dramatism, including action and motion; motive and situation; identification and division; attitude, form, and circumference. I use these terms to chart the early emergence of checklists within professional literature; to trace their rapid uptake as a standard of professional communication; to discern their multiple functions or purposes; to illustrate how and why they are enacted, accepted, and sometimes rejected in the operating theatre; and to locate blind spots in applied health services research. Taken together, these analyses demonstrate the importance of diverse rhetorical processes both to the uptake and to the basic functions of checklists. They also demonstrate the value and versatility of dramatistic terms. I contend in particular that the concept of rhetorical situation, as elaborated by Burke, holds significant potential for understanding and negotiating the material and symbolic dimensions of practice and practice change. This dissertation points the way toward a uniquely rhetorical approach to the study and practice of knowledge translation in healthcare work.


Five odd questions: PhD candidate Jin Sol Kim

When I approached a number of UWaterloo English PhD candidates to ask if they’d be willing to answer “five odd questions” for the blog, I wasn’t sure the format would work. This interview with Jin Sol Kim, featuring drugged tigers, Tinder, and the hunt for a good hot and sour soup, allayed all of my doubts.

JLH: What has been your strangest experience (or thing overheard) at UWaterloo?
JSK: I’ve been at UWaterloo for quite some time now, so I’d have to dig back a few years to accurately answer this question… but honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is just that overall experience of being here for so long, and seeing all the changes that have taken place over the years – to the campus, the English program, and even myself – and not being able to keep up with it sometimes! That and the strange feeling I get when I realize (more broadly) that first year students in undergrad are now born in… what is it, the year 2000 for this incoming Fall cohort?

JLH: What is the oddest way your research or PhD has been misinterpreted?
JSK: I’m not that far into my PhD yet, so for now, it seems that there’s more so a general confusion as to what my dissertation is about as opposed to a misinterpretation of it. I did complete my MA in this department as well, though, with my final Master’s research project (MRP) on Tinder as life-writing, so of course I was known for some time as “the Tinder girl.” Most of my friends think this means that I’m some sort of Tinder guru who holds the key to creating the perfect Tinder profile; I’ve had a fair number of people throw their phones at me to help “fix theirs up”. While I could definitely offer some tips, what my MRP actually focused on was the image patterns found on the app, and the rhetoric of these images in the self-presentation of its users. Not sorry to disappoint.

JLH: We’ve disposed of a lot of arcane academic traditions. What new one would you introduce?
JSK: Now I’m curious as to what some of these traditions were. I’m trying to think of the remaining traditions, and for some reason I’m drawing a blank, so I’m not sure what I’d introduce… maybe something that would encourage camaraderie amongst the grad students across different faculties? Or even between undergraduates and graduates to bridge the gap, like a mentorship program, if one doesn’t already exist. Whatever it is, it would be something that emphasizes community and is of interest/beneficial to the students.

JLH: What is your favourite food for academic inspiration?
JSK: If I’m being frank – and people who know me well know this to be true – I’d say beer, even though that’s not really food. Beer and soup. It’s a weird combination, so I don’t typically have it together (I don’t think?), but usually if I’m stuck in my head, I’ll have one or the other, and even the first bite or sip is enough to ease my tension and get me thinking clearly again. Pho is always a nice go-to here in KW, and a really good hot-and-sour makes a world of difference, but I’ve been struggling to find the latter in the area lately. In a different interpretation of this question, if we’re talking about being academically inspired about food, I’m not sure… probably also soup? I’d have to rewatch Ugly Delicious on Netflix and think it through.

JLH: If we were to look at your works cited, what is the most unusual thing you’ve cited?
JSK: Since I do research in new/digital/social media, there’s probably a lot of things unusual about my works cited (the internet is an exciting and also crazy place to be). Going back to my MRP, one example is a source that looked at the Tigers of Tinder – that is, the constant appearance of tourist photos where the individual is posing with a drugged-up tiger. I’m currently working on a paper for a course that looks at plastic surgery in light of psychoanalysis, so the works cited for that should be interesting as well.

Murder, jazz, and more: English 485 this fall

It’s that time when we start to advertise special topics courses. I could lead with “this one has no exam,” but quite honestly, that’s not as compelling as tales of jazz, mystery, racial passing, and the hoops African American authors jumped through to get them published. Welcome to English 485, Claiming the Narrative: African American Novels from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (offered Fall 2018, M/W 1:00-2:20).

Claiming the Narrative: African American Novels from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
Dr. Jennifer Harris

A satire featuring a machine that turns black people white; a murder mystery where the corpse isn’t dead; a utopian tale of a secret black nationalist state in Texas; an expressionist jazz novel. Following the abolition of slavery African American readers swelled in numbers; so too, did their desire for diverse novels with protagonists who looked like them or shared their sensibilities and concerns. This course opens in the 1890s when, for the first time, African American authors could reasonably assume that the majority of their black readers hadn’t been denied access to literacy and had exposure to a variety of literary forms. Yet, access to publishing remained vexed; white newspapers did not equally review black novels, mainstream literary journals expressed a preference for particular iterations of black life, and white publishers proclaimed there was no audience for a “black book.” Drawing on literary studies and print culture studies, we will consider eight novels, the context in which they were produced, and the ways in which they circulated. Select academic essays on African American print culture and literary history will complement our study. As there is no exam, additional emphasis will be placed on engagement in the classroom.

Course readings
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Plum Bun (1928)
Fisher, Rudolph. The Conjure Man Dies (1932)
Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio (1899)
Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy (1892)
Johnson, James Weldon. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
Larsen, Nella. Passing (1929)
McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem (1927)
Thurman, Wallace. Black No More (1931)
* select academic articles will be posted on learn

Course components
Two written reports (3 pages each) on reception of a novel (2 x 10%=20%)
Presentation (25 minutes) (25%)
Essay proposal (10%)
Essay peer review component (5%)
Final essay (8-10 pages) (25%)
Class participation (15%)
* no exam

New novel from St. Jerome’s instructor

Congratulations to Claire Tacon, creative writing instructor at St. Jerome’s, at University of Waterloo, on the publication of her second novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo. Quill & Quire describes the characters and stories as “touching and resonant.” Tacon received the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke award for her first novel, In the Field. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Bronwen Wallace Award and the CBC Literary Awards. Previously, she has published in The New Quarterly (housed at St. Jerome’s),  sub-TERRAIN, and Best Canadian Short Stories. From the press:

When Henry Robinson’s daughter Starr is born with Williams Syndrome, he swears to devote his life to making her happy. More than twenty years later, Henry works at Frankie’s Funhouse, where he repairs the animatronic band that Starr loves, wrestling with her attempts at living outside the family home. His wife wishes he would allow Starr more independence and turn his attention a little more to their own relationship and their other daughter, Melanie. As tensions mount Henry’s young coworker, Darren, reveals he needs to get to Chicago Comic Con to win back his ex-girlfriend, so Henry packs Starr (and her pet turtles) and Darren (still dressed as Frankie the mascot) into the van for a road trip no one was prepared for.

Told in multiple points of view, we hear from Henry, Darren and Starr as they all try to find their place in the world. In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo is a charming, tender and often funny story of a father struggling to let his daughters grow up and of a family struggling against hard odds, taking care of each other when the world lets them down.

Welcoming (back) Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher

As many know, UWaterloo English hired several new faculty this year. Oddly, the people who assessed the needs of the department and proposed this particular position were unaware of Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher, his close ties to the institution, and his motivation to return to the region
. Read on for more–including his comments on when Fed Hall. was “the largest dance hall on any university campus in Canada.” Welcome Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher!

JLH: Welcome to UWaterloo—we know you have a history with the institution. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how it feels to be returning?
BM: I’m absolutely thrilled to be returning to UWaterloo after many years away from what’s always felt like my educational home. Being Canadian and growing up in Southwestern Ontario, I spent the bulk of my childhood in Stratford and in and around Toronto, Ontario. During my visits home, I’ve watched Kitchener-Waterloo grow from a small university town to what feels like a futuristic high-tech hub and cultural centre. I completed my BA and MA in English Co-Op at UWaterloo, and then moved to the United States to earn my PhD in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University, before taking a position as an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. After receiving tenure, I moved from the humanities to the College of Education at NC State.

In 2015, my wife, Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, took a tenure-track position in the Department of English Language & Literature at UWaterloo, and we’ve been enjoying re-acquainting ourselves with the university, city, and region ever since. During my last few years traveling back-and-forth between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Waterloo, Ontario, I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to join the department and to give back to the Canadian research and teaching context what’s been so generously given during my university years. It’s wonderful to be home again.

JLH: What do you see as the biggest change at UWaterloo since you graduated?
BM: The 1980s and 2018 feel dramatically different, particularly in terms of campus resources and architecture (and my lack of familiarity with it!). For example, when I attended UWaterloo, Fed Hall, “the largest dance hall on any university campus in Canada,” was lined up at the door every night of the week. It hosted the likes of Billy Bragg and The Indigo Girls, students danced till 1 AM, and in those days you could smoke inside. The University Club was an unknown to me, and the Bombshelter played “Leave it to Beaver” re-runs every Friday afternoon. Thankfully, they appear to have upgraded the furniture we routinely slept on in what was then called the Campus Centre. I recall there being less food available on campus and many of the spaces between buildings are now filled with new buildings. Fed Hall, the Bombshelter, and the Grad House were where most students ate, studied, and built life-long friendships, or at least that’s my happy memory of the time. I also have vivid memories of Hagey Hall, where I spent the majority of my time and shared an office with three other MA students.

JLH: You’ll be teaching English across faculties: what do you see as the most rewarding part of teaching non-English majors?
BM: I’ve been teaching non-English majors for most of my career, a lucky byproduct of being an English major interested in computers in the 1980s. Working with Dr. Paul Beam on computational analyses of Alexander Pope and Thomas Hardy, and with Dr. Phillip Smith as a TA for Introduction to Computing Technology for Arts majors, I had unique experiences that led me to teach courses enrolled by students across disciplines. Later, at North Carolina State University, I taught engineering communication, science communication, and business communication. And even later I taught training and development and education majors at the graduate level. Personally, I’ve also learned a lot from hearing my eldest daughter talk about her own experiences as a Computer Science major at Duke University, and now, working in the high-tech industry. I have also enjoyed working on numerous grants and dissertation committees that involved non-majors. I haven’t taught first-year students since I was at Carnegie Mellon University, so I’m looking very forward to reacquainting myself students new to their disciplines and to University of Waterloo in general. It’s an exciting time for me to begin teaching first-year students again, as my youngest daughter is just beginning her first year in college this August at UNC-Asheville.

JLH: Can you share a bit about your current research projects?
BM: I am currently working on a book-length manuscript, tentatively entitled “Learner,” an exploration of the rhetoricity of learning across the life span. Drawing on research from education and contemporary rhetoric, I explore the movement from behavioural to cognitive to social theories of learning.

I’ve also been collaborating with Ashley Mehlenbacher on a chapter where we discuss how online genres are used to communicate climate change information. This is part of work I’ve been conducting related to rhetorical studies of science and technology, a field I’ve only been reacquainting myself with over the last few years, last having worked in the area as a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University while completing a dissertation on proposals in biochemical research.

JLH: Finally—because I often ask—what are you reading for fun?
BM: I’m currently reading Timothy Findley’s final novel, Spadework, a book that I picked up in a used bookstore in Stratford, Ontario, and coincidentally, a murder mystery set in Stratford, Ontario, where Findley lived. The inside cover has a map of Stratford which, happily, I haven’t had to rely upon in my reading!

New faculty: Dr. Jennifer Clary-Lemon

JCLAs many people know, UWaterloo English committed a significant portion of the winter term to interviewing potential new faculty members.  The process is bittersweet: you get to read about and meet the most exciting and interesting people, but can only hire a few. Then it comes time to extend a job offer, and there you are, on the edge of your seat, hopeful that someone will like you as much as you like them. In this case, we are ridiculously fortunate that Dr. Jennifer Clary-Lemon liked us! The co-author of Cross-Border Networks in Writing Studies and former editor of Composition Studies, Dr. Clary-Lemon has also contributed to Rhetoric Review, College Composition and Communication, Discourse and Society, and The American Review of Canadian Studies. And she agreed to an interview! Read on to find out more, and join me in welcoming her to the department.–JLH

JLH: Welcome to UWaterloo. If I have this right, you have Canadian west coast ties, and then were on the prairies–how does it feel to be relocating to Ontario? Will UWaterloo be a bit of a cultural shift on top of the geographic shift?

JCL: Thanks for your welcome! It’s true, I was born in Dawson Creek, B.C. and have lived many places West (Kelowna, Vancouver, Honolulu, Prescott, Tucson, Tempe) and Midwest (Chicago, Winnipeg). I guess I think of myself as a person from the west, though living in the longitudinal centre of Canada for the last twelve years has brought some cognitive dissonance to me thinking of myself that way. It’s going to be strange crossing that centreline, thinking of my geographies anew, and re-associating myself with a different region. Though you could say I’ve been drifting eastward for a long time!

Admittedly, I don’t yet know much about the culture of Ontario other than what makes the news rounds. But I’m used to working at a small, liberal arts inner-city university in an urban centre with Indigenization as a key strategic initiative. It will be a big shift moving to a much larger research university whose focus is on the STEM disciplines. For me, that’s the immediate cultural shift that I’ll be trying to get a handle on as I arrive.

JLH: Some of your research explicitly engages the Canadian west coast–can you talk a bit about that, and your research more generally?

JCL: My research about the Canadian west coast was entirely by accident—I wound up interviewing tree planters in Manitoba about their experiences, and many of them invoked time they had spent tree planting in B.C. and Alberta.  That project, a book called Planting the Anthropocene: Rhetorics of Natureculture (out next March!), is a rhetorical look into the world of industrial tree planting, engaging themes of nature, culture, and environmental change. Bringing together the work of material ecocriticism and critical affect studies, it argues for a new theoretical framework that I call a new materialist environmental rhetoric.

Because that project is mostly done, right now I’m meandering down a couple of other new research paths. The first is about the tension between new materialism and cultural rhetorics (particularly indigenous rhetorics), and the second is about the ways that humans and non-humans make meaning and persuade each other in development projects, particularly as they apply to environmental impact mitigations for endangered species.

JLH: I’m really intrigued by your work with the University of Winnipeg Global College Institute for Literacy, Diversity, and Identity. Could you tell us a bit about it?

JCL: Directing the Global College Institute was a wonderful opportunity to support diverse initiatives on campus that were interdisciplinary, community-based, and flexible enough to want a launching pad outside of a traditional disciplinary department. My time as Institute Director brought together the three elements of Literacy, Diversity and Identity by choosing to support initiatives that creatively combined them: supporting the Finding Your Voice creative writing program for new Canadians; supporting practicum-based events in experiential learning courses like the 24-hour Read-A-Thon and Book social;  assisting a student symposium that brought together students in English, Rhetoric, and Education to speak about their experience with community service learning; partnering with Amnesty International  to host workshops on nonviolent communication; supporting the Tongues project with the NEEDS centre (an after-school program honouring diverse language approaches to art, writing, and music); and delivering a workshop on Critical Discourse Analysis to Young Leaders in Sustainability for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

JLH: Where do you see yourself fitting within the department?

JCL: I’ve worked for so long in an independent department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications that sometimes I forget that my PhD is in English! To that end, much of the collegial work I’ve done in my past has been the work that brings together seemingly disparate disciplinary areas and finding common ground between and among them. I suppose I see my fit at UWaterloo in the same way—I love teaching writing, I love researching rhetorical theory, and I have always loved reading. Although we are all loyal to our own scholarly traditions, there is much common ground to bring to bear between them.  I guess I see myself as a listener to those conversations, and someone who wants to have them in the best interests of students.

JLH: Finally–because I often ask–what pleasure reading do you have lined up? Even if you can’t get to it!

JCL: Some days pleasure reading and research reading is the same, as was just the case when I finished The Overstory, by Richard Powers. However, I will say that I often follow the whims of good pals who ask for suggestions on social media and then I lurk greedily in the comments. What this means is that I have many titles written down that I know nothing about and probably don’t go together, but that I have on good advice that they’re good reads—Invisibility is a Superpower, Dare Me, Excellent Women, Lay It On My Heart. Oh, and judge me as you will, but every time I wind up reading a YA novel when I didn’t know it was YA, I wonder, why doesn’t everyone write novels this well?

In defence of uselessness

Screenshot 2018-06-25 10.14.00
If you were reading the Kitchener Waterloo Record this past weekend, you might have seen a piece by UWaterloo English’s Dr. Marcel O’Gorman. Titled “In defence of uselessness,” the piece builds on his comments at the recent TrueNorth conference. The full text of the keynote is reproduced below:

In Defence of Uselessness

“In such a state, nothing useless exists.”
– Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society

In his 2016 book La mélodie du tic-tac et autres bonnes raisons de perdre son temps, Pierre Cassou-Noguès provides a literary and intellectual history of how to waste time. Or in his words, how to “traîne” — comment traîner. Smoking, daydreaming, listenting intently to the tick-tock of a clock. These are all examples he gives of traîner, which is a very difficult word to translate. Slacking or loafing don’t quite fit the bill.

As Cassou-Noguès wrote to me in an e-mail conversation: ”I am not sure there is an English equivalent to « traîner ». It would be at the center of the constellation [of] procrastination (not answering an email right now), lounging (doing nothing at home), hanging around (teenagers in the street), going slow (on a bicycle).”

More than a discourse on laziness, this speculative book transforms traîner into a political act, and Cassou-Noguès ultimately calls for a movement to preserve the right to traîne.

Avons-nous toujours traîné et continuerons-nous à traîner? Je n’en suis pas certain. “Traîner” est un phénomène moderne, corrélative d’un certain stade de la technologie, un temps perdu dans une économie des machines et qui tend peut-être à disparaître aujourd’hui. Où d’autres machines se développent qui ne nous laisseront bientôt plus traîner. Il faudrait alors defendre notre droit à traîner.

Have we always traîned and will we continue to traîne? I’m not sure. Traîning is a modern phenomenon that correlates with a certain technological stage, a lost time in an economy of machines, and today it may well be on the verge of disappearance. Or other machines will emerge to keep us from traîning. We must therefore defend our right to traîne.

Cassou-Noguès’ words seem to address Jacques Ellul’s ultimate conviction that in a techno-capitalist state, “nothing useless exists.” Even the traîning of Cassou-Noguès makes uselessness useful by transforming uselessness into a form of resistance against technocapitalism.

Needless to say, uselessness is very difficult to achieve. Take for example, the useless machine proposed by Marvin Minsky and ultimately fabricated by Claude Shannon while they were working at Bell Labs in 1952. As Minsky describes it, this “ultimate machine” is a small box with a single switch. When the switch is flipped on, a hand emerges from the box and flips it back off.

Minsky’s reference to the box as the “ultimate machine” can only be taken as irony. As he revealed in a 2011 video interview, “Somehow this machine got a lot of publicity, because most people thought that it was perhaps the most useless machine ever made so far.” But indeed, there is something “ultimate” about this machine, which points to a final and fundamental principle. As many observers have pointed out, Minsky’s useless box may be viewed as a machine that thinks for itself, an embodiment of the very field that Minsky pioneered at Bell Labs, the field of Artificial Intelligence.

Minsky’s Ultimate Machine is useful then as a model. But such a view is only possible if one ascribes a certain intelligence to this very simple gizmo. And that requires a leap of the imagination. This is where Arthur C. Clarke comes in. He, more than anyone, has played a crucial role in defining the narrative and legacy of the Ultimate Machine. After encountering the useless box on Shannon’s desk, Clarke wrote the following: “The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.” It remains a mystery why Clarke saw the box as sinister. Did it strike him as an uncanny breach of the line between living and non-living entities? Or was it simply that the machine seemed to be resisting human will? Or was it both?

The concept of a machine that turns itself off was not new when Arthur C. Clarke encountered the useless box for the first time. Consider for example the bi-metallic thermostat or the steam engine governor, both of which served as examples of negative feedback in Norbert Weiner’s treatise on cybernetics. But what Clarke observed in the Ultimate Machine was more than control and feedback; he thought he was witnessing something sinister, a machine with its own volition.

In fact, Clarke claimed that the sinister box literally drove people mad: “distinguished scientists and engineers have taken days to get over it,” he wrote. “Some retired to professions which still had a future, such as basket-weaving, bee-keeping, truffle-hunting, or water-divining.” Perhaps the Ultimate Machine is simply an object of transference for Clarke’s frustrating attempt to fully grasp cybernetics. As Marvin Minsky put it in a paper entitled “Matter, Mind, and Models,” “If one thoroughly understands a machine or a program, he finds no urge to attribute ‘volition’ to it. If one does not understand it so well, he must supply an incomplete model for explanation.”

What is most pertinent here about Clarke’s tale of the Ultimate Machine driving scientists to distraction is that it addresses, if only obliquely, the usefulness of different types of activities, be they mathematics, tinkering, basket-weaving, or truffle-hunting.

Ironically, designing useless machines was precisely the sort of usefully useless activity that Minsky and Shannon were supposed to be undertaking at Bell Labs, which still supports curiosity-driven research to this day. In his book Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, Douglas Coupland describes his own visit to Bell Labs, where he observed a small gathering of scientists tackling the complexity of how to win a hot dog eating contest. As Coupland put it, “this is just the sort of problem scientifically gifted people take and solve, and then they extrapolate what they learned from the process and convert the knowledge into a useful project.”

Creating a space for useless pursuits seems to be a good idea. Bell Labs’ commitment to supporting pure research has led to the invention of the transistor, the laser, information theory, the Unix operating system, and the programming languages C, and C++.

But Bell Labs is not the only institution that has famously supported what might be viewed as useless research. In 1939, the educational reformer Abraham Flexner published an article entitled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in Harper’s Magazine, in which he defended the work of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Founded in 1930, the Institute has fostered the work of Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Erwin Panofsky, and Clifford Geertz, among others. Wary of the growing specialization of knowledge, Flexner asks in his essay whether the “conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit” (544).

Flexner provides several examples of how pure research, untrammelled by a specific disciplinary field, has led to groundbreaking results, including the work of Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz on the mystery of electromagnetic waves. This work allowed Marconi to invent the radio, and Flexner questions where the credit is due. “Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing,” he wrote, “but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained and earned millions” (544). “Who were the useful men,” Flexner asks. “Not Marconi, but Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use” (545).

A central problem with Flexner’s treatise on pure research becomes apparent when we consider who directed the Institute for Advanced Study from 1947 to 1966: J. Robert Oppenheimer. Known for his work on The Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer provides a stellar example of how supposedly useless theoretical knowledge – such as the attempt to understand how uranium is converted into barium – can lead to catastrophic forms of utilitarianism.

When Flexner wrote the Harper’s article in 1939, he could not have anticipated how the supposedly useless work of his colleagues at Princeton would lead to the mass destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki only six years later. But Flexner was not entirely naïve; he did anticipate the potential for pure research to be applied in warfare. Referring to such discoveries as dynamite and the airplane, Flexner suggests, “the folly of man, not the intention of the scientists, is responsible for the destructive use of the agents employed in modern warfare” (546).

Untroubled by this nagging detail, Flexner concludes his essay by describing the Institute as “a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so”  (552). Flexner’s comparison of scientists to poets and musicians calls for closer scrutiny.

In his aptly titled book, The Usefulness of the Useless, Nuccio Ordine, inspired by Flexner’s essay, argues that “together with humanists, scientists have also played, and still do, a most important role in the battle against the dictatorship of profit, to defend the liberty and gratuitousness of knowledge and research” (7). Ordine’s book is a small encyclopedic catalog of the value of uselessness as prescribed by such luminaries as Ovid, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Borges, and more. Like Pierre Cassou-Noguès, Ordine understands uselessness as a form of resistance, “an antidote to the barbarism of profit that has gone so far as to corrupt our social relations and our most intimate affections” (23).

What Ordine’s book makes clear is that there is a vast difference between a useless poem and a useless science experiment. In fact, the very idea of a “useless science experiment” seems almost unthinkable in today’s research climate, where science experiments are always conducted in an innovation ecology designed to shepherd research toward the market. My own institution, the University of Waterloo, prides itself on the swiftness of its innovation system, as evidenced in the institution’s massive investment in student-run tech start-ups.  You would be hard pressed to find such investments in the arts and humanities, which by comparison, are relatively useless and immune to innovation.

In Part 2 of Ordine’s book, entitled “The University of Company, the Student as Client,” he cites at length work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America between 1835 and 1840. A key feature of Tocqueville’s evisceration of the Land of the Free is his observation that in this new capitalist democracy, there is no time for theory. “[H]ardly anyone in the United States,” he proclaims, “devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge.” They consult only those books which are “speedily read and which require no scholarly investigation to be understood.” This allows them to gain whatever knowledge is useful in the moment for the purpose of economic gain.

For Tocqueville, an antidote for the unreflective, unrestrained life of the capitalist is the meditative life of the humanist, who is more likely to consult less useful books that are not speedily read.

The concept of uselessness is of course culturally constructed. If today, the arts and humanities are seen as useless, it is because they do not possess the necessary cultural capital to be considered as profitable. This is precisely what makes the arts and humanities usefully useless. By maintaining a theoretical distance from the innovation ecosystem, non-STEM disciplines provide a safe space from which to examine the impacts and predict the potential impacts of research conducted in the innovation ecology.

The problem, of course, is that the useless mode of reflection afforded by the humanities would risk a slow-down of the innovation ecology. Don Ihde quite aptly anticipated this problem in his book Bodies in Technology, where he writes,

A first response to this proposal might well be: but who wants any philosophers among the generals? the research and development team? the science policy boards? The implication is, of course, that philosophers will simply ‘gum up the works.’ And the excuse will be that philosophers are not technical experts, and any normative considerations this early will certainly slow things down—a sort of Amish effect. Of course, the objections in turn imply the continuance of a status quo among the technocrats, who remain free to develop anything whatsoever and free from reflective considerations (105).

In spite of Ihde’s cynicism, for the past decade in the Critical Media Lab, I have been asking what it would it mean to inject “reflective considerations” into the design processes of technological development. This work led to an invitation recently, to deliver a keynote address at the True North Conference in Kitchener-Waterloo, a region with aspirations of being Silicon Valley North.

With a theme of “Tech for Good,” the goal of this conference was for the Canadian tech community to “examine the values that guide technology innovation. And to redefine tech as a force for good.” In this context, I was asked to deliver a very focused talk on “A.I. and Ethics.” I was also asked to finish on a positive note. “Build a bridge,” they said.  That was my directive, and they laughed genially when I accused them of being too pushy.

But as a scholar of subjects that are useless to the tech community – e.g., philosophy, rhetoric, literature – I couldn’t help but seize this rare opportunity to address some big questions about tech from the perspective of these seemingly useless disciplines, beginning with the question of uselessness itself. What resulted was not a talk about A.I. and ethics, but a reflection on the ethos of the tech community.

In my talk, I introduced yet another useless box. In a blog post entitled “AI Behaving Badly,” Matthew Biggins looks at the problems that can arise when pure AI research is applied in what seem to be useful contexts. His examples include the following: Microsoft’s Twitter-bot Tay, which almost immediately devolved into a sexist Hitler supporter; autonomous vehicles that must decide which human beings to spare in a crash; and military AI that threaten to start another arms race.

In order to illustrate the problem that each of these examples embodies, Biggins embedded a video into his blog post of the “Arduino Knife-Wielding Tentacle” developed by a mysterious tinkerer known as Outa Space Man. This is a box containing a microcontroller and servo motor that power a mechanical pink tentacle wielding a Swiss army knife. Once the box is turned on, the tentacle flails about erratically, and there is no easy way to turn it off without risking injury. This by all means is a useless box in its own right, but it is also single-mindedly murderous. If Arthur C. Clarke thought Shannon’s box was sinister, what would he think of Outa Space Man’s creation?

Kelsey D. Atherton, in an article written for Popular Science, uses the knife-wielding tentacle as an opportunity to ruminate on the future of AI. Half-jokingly, he asks the following existential question: “Will robots ever really understand the human condition? Is it possible, for example, for a machine to know both terrible purpose and utter futility at the same time?”

Maybe what Atherton has put his finger on here is what Abraham Flexner called “the folly of man,” an all-too-human impulse that allows pure science to be plied for the sake of pure destruction. “Tremble before the knowledge that a human made this rubbery nothing for fun,” writes Atherton.

I would like to think that the “The Arduino Knife-Wielding Tentacle” is a contemporary equivalent of Minsky and Shannon’s useless box. But the tentacle seems to be rooted in the uselessness of arts and humanities more than in the uselessness of science. It is a product of theoretical reflection, and it asks us to consider not the ethics of research into generalized A.I., but the personal motivations of the researchers. We need more useless boxes like this, objects-to-think-with that promote speculation about technology while simultaneously adding a little humour into the growing murmur on A.I. and ethics.

It should come as no surprise that the Minsky and Shannon’s Ultimate Machine has been rendered useful as a prefab maker kit ready for mass-consumption.  After all, nothing is useless if it can generate a profit. I have purchased dozens of these kits myself, which are a perfect way to teach humanities students how to both solder circuits and hack machines, turning them into philosophical objects. But at no time in these lessons do I bring up the concept of ethics.

The problem with ethics is that they can too easily be used as a way of hiding motives or excusing behaviours. Ethics, as they are commonly understood in the tech industry, are something you tack onto a project at the end to make sure it’s socially acceptable. Ethics is a checkbox that someone fills out in an office far away from the engineering, design and marketing people. As a matter of fact, ethics in the tech community might be completely useless, except that ethics can create a barrier to innovation. And it sometimes feels like that is the only reason why people want to talk about ethics.

Rather than talking about ethics then, I prefer to talk about ethos, a concept that is well-known in useless academic disciplines like Philosophy and Rhetoric. Ethos, as the Oxford Online Dictionary tells us, defines the “characteristic spirit of a culture, era, community [or person] as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations.”

Ethos determines why someone is motivated to develop a technology in the first place. What are that person’s attitudes and aspirations? Are they guided by profit, by utility, by a single-minded dedication to innovation for the sake of innovation? Or are they guided by other motives that exceed the boundaries of the tech community? What is the ethos, for example, of a community or person who wants to produce an intelligent non-human agent that might very well have no practical use for human beings?

This question, which is a question of trust, is why the idea of general A.I. should provoke tentacular fear.

In the May 14 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Tad Friend has a very detailed article about the perils and promise of AI. He quotes chess master Gary Kasparov, who, in spite of sour grapes about his bout with Big Blue, predicts wistfully that “using AI for ‘the more menial aspects’ of reasoning will free us, elevating our cognition ‘toward creativity, curiosity, beauty, and joy.’”

The problem with Kasparov’s gambit is that, as a result of our devotion to tech innovation, we might be losing the ability to appreciate, experience or even understand forms of creativity, curiosity, beauty, and joy that we have come to understand as useless. If A.I. frees us from “menial” cognitive tasks, will we spend more time reading Dostoevsky, volunteering at a soup kitchen, and pursuing art lessons? Or will we use that freedom to shop for suggested items on Amazon, browse prefab playlists on YouTube, and play some future version HQ that taps into our social media preferences?

The most effective way to make a machine that thinks like a human is to redefine what it means to be human in the first place. If humans develop an ethos that ignores useless things like philosophy, art, literature, or social justice – things that are very hard to program into machines — then researchers can take a giant leap toward achieving General AI. But at what cost?

Coincidentally, sandwiched into Friend’s New Yorker article is a cartoon by P.C. Vey.  It shows two mobsters strong-arming a student who is wearing a cap and gown. His hands are bound. His feet are stuck in a tub of cement. As they prepare to hurl the student off a dock, one of the thugs explains his fate: “It’s not personal. The boss just doesn’t like seeing people in so much debt for such a useless degree.”

To me, this cartoon is a very happy – and useful — coincidence. What the tech community needs is more uselessness. Rather than putting all its effort into leaping forward, maybe it should slow down and look around. In my own Canadian city, the tech community can start by looking at other communities, from the Grand Valley women’s prison in South Kitchener, to the Old Order Mennonite farms in North Waterloo, keeping in mind that all of this is on land that was once promised to Indigenous people.

There’s a lot of talk about transforming the region where I live into a second Silicon Valley. A Silicon Valley of the North. But why would anyone wish this upon themselves?

A recent story in The Guardian describes why Gregory Stevens, a Palo Alto pastor, resigned from his church. To put it in his words, “I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power, and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action.”

The question of what is good, of how to live the good life, is an ancient question asked by many thinkers over the past few thousand years. It’s by asking these sorts of useless questions that a person develops an admirable ethos in the first place, an ethos that is guided by what is good for others and not just for oneself. An ethos that asks, Who is left out? Who is in need? An ethos that asks, What are the consequences – social, psychological, environmental – of my technological innovations? This is an ethos that might truly develop “Tech for Good.” But it’s going to take a lot of useless thinking to get there.