I love flying. This is something I rarely hear from others—but over several years I’ve never not enjoyed a plane ride, minus one red-eye from Seattle to Chicago that was ultimately little less than a stiff and sleepless night. Generally, though, I don’t mind how cramped it is; for a two-hour hop from Chicago to Tampa or New York, I can bear it (though that may change as I get older).
There’s something about the act of being alone with my thoughts that forces a level of introspection and self-awareness that I rarely experience otherwise. I have nothing else to think about—no phone to distract me, no email to tab over to, no people to have a conversation with.
Instead, I’ll put on some music and let the time pass. My choices are to focus on the music or focus on myself, and they’re both stellar options. I’ll get chills from music most frequently when I can listen mindfully, pay attention to the lyrics, and hear complex background textures, countermelodies, or chord progressions; and that’s exactly what happens on airplanes.
I’ll frequently listen to music that takes me back to a different time in my life: a particular quarter of college, the summer I spent in Seattle, further back in high school, or life since graduation. Or hear something new in a song that I’ve heard a thousand times. None of this is exclusive to airplanes, but for me it’s facilitated by them.
I’m writing this on a flight from Chicago to Tampa for work. I recently bought noise-canceling headphones, and I’m using them on a flight for the first time; they’re truly life changing. I have a book open behind my computer, and my favorite jacket on. The sun is shining above the clouds.
This time, I opened the book Network Propaganda by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. At the time of writing (2018), all of them were researchers at the Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. The book sounds interesting enough from the summary, but after reading the authors’ bios and first few pages, I was hit with what will likely become a life-changing realization: I can’t not be a researcher.
For the past year or so (essentially for as long as I’ve had this blog), I’ve been toying with the idea of going into a PhD program to do research in HCI. And while I’ve had moments that suggested this was right for me—engaging with interesting papers, or paging through long reports about media and technology and society—none of them hit me as clearly as this one.
I want to do research. I want to help us to understand how the world works. It’s not just to make the world a better place—I can do that at or outside of work either way—but rather to contribute to more fundamental knowledge of how media and technology are affecting us.
The questions that remain are ones of timelines, locations, and research directions. I’m most excited to engage with the last one; I’ve said before that my broad research interests are some combination of HCI & human-centered AI, social computing, and the effects of media and technology on individuals and society. Figuring out what narrow part of this to study deeply excites me.
I’ve got another hour and a half on this flight, and I’m looking forward to digging into this book.