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Spotlight on Ian Hartman, PhD candidate in Screen Cultures

Modified: November 10, 2016

Ian Hartman, a PhD candidate in Screen Cultures, was initially attracted to Northwestern because of its strong commitment to interdisciplinarity. While completing his degree in Cinema Studies and French at New York University, Ian’s mentors encouraged him to continue his education in media studies. 

Ian’s dissertation is about the intersecting histories of cybernetics and American exoticism from the 1940s to the 1990s. He examines how various paradigms in the midcentury social sciences, along with shifting conceptualizations of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference, influenced the design, implementation, and understanding of cybernetic methods and computer technologies, both in the academy and popular culture. 

Ian says that cybernetics is a notoriously difficult subject to pin down, but describes it as “a transdisciplinary metascience that attempted to analyze a range of biological, mechanical, and social processes using a common set of methods and metaphors derived from the sciences of engineering and communication Cyberneticians thought these ideas could form the basis for a common intellectual framework that would allow them to speak across fields that normally weren’t connected to one another. This ambitious interdisciplinary pursuit went on to influence a wide range of academic disciplines, technological developments, and cultural movements – which are ultimately what I examine in my dissertation.”

At Northwestern, Ian’s early research focused on digital games and gaming culture. After completing his Master’s, he was encouraged to broaden the horizons of his research, ultimately leading him to cybernetics. He was drawn to this topic in part because of how proponents of cybernetics attempted to bridge disciplinary divides

“I’ve always been on the periphery of various disciplines, trying to find my way within them while staying grounded in a core set of ideas. Working on cybernetics has compelled me to really confront what it means to be interdisciplinary. It is not a value-neutral ideaIt’s not even necessarily even always a good thing! It can be overambitious and domineering, as my research has taught me. Working on these histories has encouraged me to make my own connections between disciplines more responsibly.”

Ian’s goal with his dissertation is to understand where our society’s current enthusiasm for computer technologies comes from.

“I hope to temper such enthusiasms by historicizing some of the ideas and social forces that helped shape the ways these technologies were created and understood,” he explains.

Ian is one of four inaugural Franke Graduate Fellows for the 2016-2017 academic year, a fellowship funded by Richard and Barbara Franke and awarded to the most promising students in fields across the humanities. Franke fellows take part in the interdisciplinary exchanges sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute throughout the year. The fellows receive mentorship from Kaplan affiliated professors, while providing mentorship to the undergraduate Kaplan fellows throughout the academic year.

Following graduation, Ian hopes to continue in Academia, but is open to any geographical location.

“I love Chicago, but I will see where the winds of fate take me,” he says.