Meet David Gruber
David Gruber, a second-year doctoral student in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media (CRDM), was awarded first place in the Social Sciences and Management category at the 2010 Graduate Student Research Symposium. His winning poster was entitled “Decoding the Language of Brain Decoding.”
Gruber, from California, already had earned a Master’s degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. And he had professional experience as an assistant to a prominent literary agent in Beverly Hills before he found his niche in the CRDM program at NC State. In fact, the program was the only thing that could have uprooted him from Southern California! However, Gruber says that while working with writers to craft pieces for translation to film or new media, he “. . . became interested in the relationship between words and visuals and how the digital revolution was changing our traditional, print-based culture.”
He believes that the CRDM program was one of very few interdisciplinary programs considering emerging issues in society as a result of digital technologies. The program has since peaked Gruber’s interest in and concern about how our technologies shape the way we think. As a result, he is now looking at the way new media technologies are being applied and adapted to the structure of our minds and how our minds are adapting to the technologies.
Gruber knew that neuroscientists have been using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans to predict what people are thinking. And he was curious to find out how this work was being communicated to the general public. Since fears -- among other things -- help shape or determine human interaction, he was especially interested in how the fears about the future of ‘mind reading’ would be framed in articles. His methodology was to sample some of the newer articles about fMRI work to see if there were any patterns in the language.
One of the first patterns Gruber discovered was that “. . .the language of the news articles tended to rely on the passive voice or to put the technology into the actor position, especially when fearful future possibilities were mentioned.” He argued that this was not only the effect of the genre, but also of a need on the part of news writers not to blame neuroscientists for any future implications of their work, as well as a need for neuroscientists “. . .to promote their work and craft identification with the audience.” Unfortunately, the result was a narrative that promoted the idea that technologies developed and acted in a world on their own.
Gruber says that most previous studies have looked at “. . . how fMRI brain research has been communicated to the public, but the fMRI neuroscience community has always been treated uniformly.” His research is unique in that he examines whether specific fMRI research agendas might actually be communicated differently.
If one accepts that language always provides a framework for how to think about something, then Gruber wants to call attention to how we could easily be guided into a position of disempowerment, especially about fMRI technology in our society. The possibility exists that there could be more to blame than just the machine!
Although Gruber’s poster took a first place award at the Symposium, he admits that he had never created a poster before and had no idea what he was doing. But he learned to simplify his poster and organize his material. He also credits several of his professors in his department who “. . . were kind enough to offer advice and let me practice my explanation of my work.”
When Gruber isn’t working on his research, his favorite hobby is painting, especially fruit. He says that “. . . there is something relaxing about painting a bowl of fruit . . . the process of pushing paint around a canvas is fun for me.” It comes as no surprise that he also likes to write – little poems and science-fiction short stories.
And his best piece of advice to other grad students: Laugh! Try to stay light-hearted and silly. Gruber believes students, as well as himself, can become way too serious when thinking too much about schoolwork and theory. He said that he’s learning that “. . . it’s not healthy to be a curmudgeon. The mind needs to be silly sometimes.”
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