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A finite brilliance

I wonder if any researcher, especially in social science, could outlive the issue he devoted his time on.  The way I see it, a researcher shed some light on an issue at a particular time, then followed and kept studying it for a while, maybe a few decades. Then he grew old, while the issue kept evolving. Then at the end of his research career, if he still cared, he would look back and likely see all kinds of new factors coming in that his works did not address/anticipate. But his time would be up and he would have to rely on someone else to pick up the thread.

How frustrating is that?

My advisor, Dr. C., is a brilliant researcher. A true inspiration. He studied social effects of television, examining them mainly from social psychology perspectives. A legend in the field of mass communications for decades now, he’s the one that top researchers talk about in utter respect.

Dr. C. often said research should concern about behaviors, not technologies. He started at the point when television became a pervasive medium in the U.S., and followed the evolution of TV viewing throughout nearly four decades. He identified a number of behavioral patterns, and up to his final publication, predicted that despite all sorts of changes in the media landscape, such patterns would not change significantly. In particular, he concluded based on meta-analysis that new media technologies would not pull people away from the TV set, nor would they change their viewing patterns, and thus we still need to be aware of various social effects of the traditional television such as violence and aggressiveness, scholastic performance, and civic participation.

Until 2009, Dr. C.’s conclusions still stand. According to Nielsen’s data, traditional TV remains the screen of choice despite other screen technologies.

However, data also point to the fact that media multitasking is on the rise, and usage of traditional TV, mobile screen, and web screen becomes increasingly intertwined. Considering the comparatively very young life of newer screen technologies, this development can’t be considered insignificant.

At an event to review and celebrate Dr. C.’s achievements last week, someone asked, but what do we mean by television now? Should we still differentiate between traditional screening and other newer means of screening?

Data indeed point to the possibility that users do not care much longer. Moving from one technology to another has become seamless one might not even pause to think about what it means by switching anymore. When the generation that mostly depends on traditional TV comes to pass, the younger generations might not even understand the notion of ‘traditional television.’

The bottom line is, would such new breed of users bears most if not all of the behavioral patterns established by Dr.C.?

Dr. C. did not answer the above questions. He’s gone into retirement. He’s passed the torch. I’m quite sure he doesn’t use most of new media technologies. (Even I, at half his age, do not use many of those technologies.) How would he examine the effects of something he simply does not have any knowledge about?

But, does he care? Is he curious about the evolution of screen media and its impacts? It would be nice to know.

I truly wish there were a way to keep the man’s mind running until infinity. He would have made some powerful predictions. As he’s fond of saying, the truth lies in patterns. He’s a master of pattern reading.

It’s sad to see such brilliant minds at some point would have to say, I don’t know.

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