What does it mean to “muck in?”

By Matti Pohjonen|March 9, 2020|AI, Digital cultures, Research|0 comments

Environmental philosopher Timothy Morton criticises what he calls a “beautiful soul syndrome” sometimes still prevalent in Academia. By this he refers to a kind of critical attitude that tries to look at the world from the safety of detachment, without getting one’s hands dirty, without compromising one’s own ideological purity. He writes that

a truly theoretical approach is not allowed to sit smugly outside the area it is examining. It must mix thoroughly with it. Adopting a position that forgoes all others would be all too easy, a naive negative criticism that is a disguised position all of its own . . . This is a political as well as intellectual position  . . .The “beautiful soul” washes his or her hands of the corrupt world, refusing to admit how in this very abstemiousness and distaste he or she participates in the corruption in the creation of that world. The world-weary soul holds all beliefs and ideas at a distance. The only ethical option is to muck in (Morton 2007: 12–13; my emphasis)


A big part of my research over the past 15 years has involved a roll-your-sleeves attitude to the implications of emerging digital technologies to how we communicate, work, socialise and understand our place in the universe.  That is, rather than researching this topic from a detached perspective, I have instead tried to seriously engage with the practice of using these different technologies as a way of both deepening my understanding of the critical philosophical debates but also for understanding how things change and how something new – the future – emerges into the world.

This sometimes eclectic approach to research has taken me to many exciting places from organising experimental art festivals in India, working with start-ups and community art projects, getting my hands dirty with practical work with mobile phones in rural Ethiopia and interactive radio in East Africa, or organising public exhibitions on AI.  I still try to do this even if teaching makes such practical engagement a bit more challenging because of the time it requires.

But just to be clear here and pre-empt common criticisms, I am not advocating that this approach works for all topics and disciplines. Many subjects still require distance and reflection – and there is a sacred place in academic research for this kind of work that should be protected with our fangs and knives out.  Yet for researchers who work with topics that closely interface with the contemporary world, such as my current work on the cultural, political and philosophical implications of AI globally, understanding how things work from within – and thus working towards critically educating and influencing how these things can work better – is probably a no-brainer. Many researchers working with global media have experience as journalists or media activists.  It is this negotiation between critical academic research and practice that gives the field a big part of its originality.

So I am happy to also announce that I have been nominated as SOAS Knowledge and Exchange Fellow to further reflect and develop this kind of applied work at SOAS.  This role will help me reflect on how this kind of practice-based research can also potentially help other academics and researchers find better ways to interface with the non-academic world.  Why do I think this matters? I was once asked that why, as a digital anthropologist, I take the new data tools and digital methods (around AI and big data) so seriously. Should not these be left to the computer scientists who work with them and have the sufficient expertise?

My response was that: “no, these debates are too important to be left to computer scientists alone.” 

Similarly, when asked about the type of work I will be doing as a SOAS Knowledge and Exchange Fellow, my response is driven by my commitment to the fact that research at SOAS has a lot to contribute to the outside world. This is why I believe that we, as researchers, should engage with all kinds of partners and collaborations – and especially non-academic partners in fields such as ethical business and social enterprise – even if this means having to get our hands dirty and mucking in. 

For, if we do not do this, somebody else will.  And SOAS loses another opportunity to provide its unique perspective that the world crucially needs.

I will be posting here more about this work over the upcoming months as I work on these topics in South Africa, Ethiopia, Ireland, Portugal, Singapore and Malaysia.

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