Good Bye 2015, Hello 2016 – Part 1: Thoughts on my Academic Career

Well, what do you know? It’s already 2016.

Here’s my wrap-up of 2015 and some comments about the new year. I’ll start by discussing my career first. I’ll discuss other issues like marriage and personal stuff in another blog post.

2015 has been incredible.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach philosophy in a few schools. It was an interesting and fun experience, but one that showed me just how out of touch I am with the younger generation. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy teaching them. But I realised that I’ve lost my ability to really connect with people at that age. What could one have in common with people who are more than a decade younger? The things they do for fun, the shows they watch, and how they interact both offline and online are so different from my generation. It’s as if we’re living in two separate worlds from each other. What more the disconnect when one has children in the future?

That bothers me. But I guess this can be rectified with more effort to interact with people younger than myself. Let’s what can be done in this new year.

My main project, to direct and produce an online course in Chinese philosophy, has not been progressing as fast as I would like it to. My boss, the dean, has been far too busy with administrative duties to be able to work on it. I am nonetheless amazed at how he’s able to do so much despite also having 24 hours in a day just like anyone else.

We have, nonetheless, filmed and edited a few videos, and the experience has been quite interesting.

The studio set which I designed and arranged. Can you spot the fake books in the shelf?
The studio set which I designed and arranged. Can you spot the fake books in the shelf?

One of the big challenges is finding ways to graphically represent a philosophical concept. It’s too easy to show a sentence or two on the screen. That’s too easy, and for that matter, it does not attempt to fully utilise the audio-visual potential that an online course provides. The more abstract a concept becomes, the tougher it is to use graphics to explain it. I think this is a largely unexplored territory and something that I’d like to investigate in the new year. It should be fun.

The most significant point in 2015 was when I was invited to speak at a recent Financial Times conference on the philosophy of technology to people from the technology and banking sectors.

Here’s some pictures:

Financial Times Smarter World Summit
The event
Financial Times Smarter World Summit
The session I was involved in
Financial Times Smarter World Summit
My face on the Financial Times website
Financial Times Smarter World Summit
The name tag for the event
Financial Times Smarter World Summit
Speaking on stage, sharing philosophical insights about technological development and other problems

Till today, I still don’t know why I was asked to do the session. There are other more talented and knowledgable philosophers in the university. I only know that I was recommended as the best person for the job. It was a humbling experience and an honour to know that I was recommended.

I do hope to do more sessions like this in the future. It’s very interesting to meet people from the tech industry. It is actually quite interesting that many problems they’re facing are actually philosophical problems (or at least problems that require the insights from the humanities). I think it would be worthwhile if I could sit down with a company and try to work out a project to address a philosophical problem that they are facing. And I’m not just talking about ethics. I’m also talking about the conceptions of certain ideas, conceptions of the human being, etc. It would be worthwhile to see how far we could go with this.

One of the key insights I gained from preparing for this event, and from interacting with people at the event, is realising that we are on the path to greater dehumanisation with technology. To be honest, I’m not too worried about the ethical aspects of technology. This is an issue that people constantly talk about whether or not they are philosophers. For me, the greatest worry is how we will think of ourselves and each other as technology continues to redefine who we are. The Big Data movement is reducing individuals into nothing more than a collection of statistics. The hash tag culture is also transforming the way we describe ourselves and the world we live in, reducing everything into keywords. What would this do to us as individuals, as a society, as we slowly think of ourselves in such terms? I worry that this will lead us into greater existential problems.

I’ll probably comment more on this another time.

This year is going to be really exciting. I’m organising a conference together with my centre director. I can’t say much at the moment. I can only say that it’s not going to be the typical academic conference. If successful, we hope to be a catalyst for greater peace and dialogue. Perhaps it’s overly optimistic. But it’s great to be involved in a project with such a noble ambition. The ground work has been laid for the past 1.5 years already. This is the year where a lot of our work will begin to bear fruit. I can’t wait to see it happening.

This is also the year where I will be furthering my studies – a Masters and not a PhD unfortunately. I have had a hard time trying to find a suitable PhD programme. Unfortunately my interests are multi-disciplinary and cannot fit any conventional PhD programme in a way I like. Most of the top Chinese philosophers are not in a philosophy department. Instead, they are in archeology, history, literature, political science, sinology, and even religion departments. I could study under them, but my training will not be a very philosophical training. Some universities allow a cross-department arrangement, but the arrangement can be rather messy. So I guess I’ll wait and see and hopefully the Masters would allow me to have a better view and understanding of what to do next.

With another 7 months left in NTU before I begin my studies, I do hope to go with on a high note. My hope is to use this last seven months to teach and lecture in public and in schools, and try to publish a paper. I don’t know if I’m being too optimistic in hoping to publish two papers. But we’ll see.

I’m still hoping to start a project with a big company, to identify and address philosophical issues underlying whatever issues they are trying to resolve and address. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve learnt from the Financial Times event that the tech world is plagued with many philosophical problems underlying the things they do. It’s not something that one can fix by throwing money into developing more technologies – that’s for sure. I’m not sure where to start, but we’ll see what’s possible.

Well, 2015 has been a great year. I look forward to exciting times this year.