Message from the Director

Fall/Winter 2011 - Substance, Immediacy, and Focus

Director Richard N. Taylor

Social media thrives on immediacy.  Whether a tweet, a Facebook update, or a post to a Google+ stream, the focus is “what’s going on now.”  The seductive character of immediacy, or at least of social media, unfortunately often seems to foster shallow relationships and shallow thinking.  Students walking around campus today are often less aware of their surroundings, and of each other, for many seem glued to staring at their “smart”phones while listening to music.  I frequently receive requests to become “friends” with someone on Facebook whom I have never heard of; stories abound of people who have hundreds of Facebook friends, yet are lonely for meaningful human relationships.

The siren character of immediacy plays out in technology development, too.  One year ago in this forum I needled the research community for failing to consistently address deep, critical problems, attributing this failure at least in part to the current nature of publication processes and funding mechanisms which incentivize work done under the lamppost – because the results are more immediate.  Corporate technology initiatives, though, perhaps deserve the prize for succumbing to the siren call of immediacy:  the lemming-like rush to the latest buzzword or technology makes responsible engineers blush.  Whether it be XML, virtualization, “the Cloud,”  “Cyber”, social media, SOAs, Web 2.0, open source, crowd-sourcing, or out-sourcing, the line forms quickly behind whatever is the latest thing, for that “thing” will surely be the ticket to fixing the organization’s problems and lead to commercial success. Indeed, as a technologist, you’re expected to embrace technology almost unconditionally. Any caution — that maybe just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s the best solution to all known problems — is seen as backwards and Luddite.

The crazy thing is, everybody knows this is crazy.  If you ask someone what their company is doing, you’ll hear about the latest silver bullet, followed by an apologetic admission, sotto voce, that everyone knows the silver bullet is a plastic slug.  Nonetheless the corporate troops must dutifully salute the slogan, all the while trying to identify genuinely appropriate technologies (including novel ones!) and incrementally improve what’s been proven.

The mission of ISR – and corporate technology leaders – has to be to keep the focus where it should be:  on the deep, hard, lasting-value topics.  Researchers in a university have an amazing privilege, and responsibility, to keep such a focus (yet must battle the publication and funding forces to do so!).  I would argue that companies must do the same, for their long-term success.  Recent tributes to Steve Jobs sometimes point this out: he earnestly strove to get a design right, and invested deeply in study that led to Apple’s terrific designs.  He did not follow the slogans; he did not succumb to the siren call of immediacy.  He did create the new, but the focus was not the immediate.

My chief priority for ISR in the coming years is to focus on design.  Design has proven to offer continuing deep challenges for research, yet nonetheless yields rich fruit along the way.  Design is an engine that can power corporate strength.  Its challenges range from the very technical to the social.  I trust you will read more about our work in design in future issues of the ISR Connector.  Design is worthwhile, and design challenges require sustained focus.  Now excuse me while I go update my Facebook page…

ISR Director Richard N. Taylor

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: