Gambling on being modern

At that point I ought to have gone away, but a strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put my tongue out at it. I laid down the largest stake allowed- 4000 gulden – and lost it. Then, getting hot, I pulled out all I had left, staked it on the same number, and lost again after which I walked away from the table as though I were stunned I could not even grasp what had happened to me 

 Dostoevsky- The Gambler

Ever the child and seeing that I have been justifiably taunted by Ois I thought I should write something. I am well aware I am indeed far too virtual a blogger. In fact, my ‘blogging’ is so virtual that bar the few early efforts on FringeThoughts it has got completely lost in that vast uncharted realm of good intentions.  

I often think of writing ‘something’ but in the hierarchy of tasks it always seems to get pushed to the bottom. I guess paid work, personal relationships, study, politics and bursts of fecklessness get in the way. Truth be known it often feels like time gets on top of me and chases me around the city with a whip. Sometimes, in the cold hours of early morning, those hours of fearful realisation, I think my inability to manage time, communication or even blog is part of a more general failure to be properly modern.Which brings me to a little research anecdote. Over the past year my work routine has be totally transformed, I am doing much less teaching and much more research. After nearly a decade of teaching this feels like a really significant personal change- a move which I should mention in passing, is undoubtedly quietly celebrated by many of my ex-students.

Anyway, I had thought doing more research would be quite liberating. As I planned my new schedule over the summer I imagined all the time I would have to read and think things out a bit more carefully. I gradually warmed to the idea and this helped me overcome my ambivalence about the usefulness of my research compared to the immediacy and communicative richness involved in teaching. Now, I didn’t think it would be all cricket, crumpets and the library but as it happens I feel more pressed than ever and I have totally underestimated how much time goes into negotiating schedules and dealing with the nitty gritty of being part of various research networks. Ok, now I know this is a pale and self-regarding sort of complaint and for the most part I am happy with things but perhaps an example will explain more clearly the sort of thing I mean and how this links it to my failure to be modern. On one of the research projects I am involved we decided to use a high-tech reader to process our questionnaires. This piece of machinery was going to take the pain out of gathering quantitative data. Oh yes, all the drudgery and effort of data input and doing basic coding was going to become a distant memory. The machine would do all the work!!!! Yep, all of it –and we would simply have to do the analysis over crumpets or whatever. (Just to explain to any reader who might not be familiar with the dealing with questionnaires this is the sociological equivalent of being told there is a machine that will clean your clothes, iron them and prepare your dinner at the flick of a switch.)  ‘If Carlsberg did sociology…….etc.’ So one fateful day I was brought to the machine, which looks like an Audi designed bacon slicer, to admire its sleek lines and hear its virtues more extravagantly extolled. Like the true modern savage that I am I bared my teeth half in joy and half in pained wonder. Seared by the white heat of technology I felt full of enthusiasm to be part of such an ingenious species. However, I also knew that there was still a dark, tubercular stain of techno incompetence deep within me. I ignored it. Of course, it was explained, this magic would demand some preparation and so I went to a small informal seminar on using the software that made this holy wonder possible. This is when the doubt really set in. An affable and helpful colleague running the seminar explained that the machine had its own ticks and faults. The layout of the questionnaire and the coding template demanded time and care. I felt the white heat of technology cooling a little. I was troubled by the sudden memory of my hapless call to tech support while working in a telesales job to ask where the plug went. Even more worrying from my point of view was the distinct look of concern and the wrinkles of concentration on the face of a bright, tech savvy Russian colleague as the very specific obstacles to the bright new dawn were outlined to us.   At least in that room there were other people involved and a vague sense of a shared venture. The next two weeks on my own were awful -the manuals were incomprehensible and everything went wrong. I began to identify with the boys from Zoolander when they are confronted by a Mac. Nothing worked. In distress I called my Russian colleague. She was incredibly helpful and clear. I went back to work. Progress, of sorts, but a week later there was a new problem. The deadline loomed and it seemed everytime I sorted a problem several new ones appeared. Something akin to technofungi I guess. I went into flight or fight mode. I spent whole evenings and weekends trying to prove I could master the machine and that I was a moderately intelligent modern fella. Groaning, I totted up the hours I had spent already and it dawned on me that even if it had been necessary to have process the data from hieroglyphs on slate to SPSS it would have been quicker than this. But I felt the terrible attraction and elation of the hopeless gamble. I would stick my tongue out at fate despite the worried phonecalls from the project supervisor. Then came a whole week of breakthroughs. It seemed like just when I was certain that it was doomed it appeared that it would come together. Perhaps I could break even? Of course you know how this goes. It didn’t work in the end and before I gave up the ghost I spent a surreal day with three colleagues miserably staring at the machine and some other poor sod on the phone miserably explaining from somewhere miserable in the UK like Bracknell why it should work as our templates were correct. So with a laugh of despair and renunciation that befits a Gambler who knew he was not for the machine age I gave up.In the end the work was all done but it meant grinding away at it day and night so the deadlines were adhered to. So what is the point of this story apart from proving to Ois that I am here? Well, probably not much except by joking about it I get some of the residual frustration out of my system at losing a fairly considerable amount of my time. More generally I find this interesting  how the ‘ought to’ in terms of rules, habits, deference to others and fantasies about the self can keep you sticking to things that are obviously a busted flush. Maybe the denizens of Fringe thoughts ought to read Talcott Parsons intensively?