May 18, 2022

The Ah-Hah Moment

I want to share some thoughts on what I call the Ah-Hah Moment – when the power of transdisciplinary work reveals itself, when the lightning strikes.

Transdisciplinarity can seem both daunting and ephemeral at first blush.

We all start at home base: a discipline, a core belief, a vocation, a world view or ideology. For me, home base was classical theater. My mentor was a very clever man named David Ball, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month. (Happy birthday, David!) He liked to talk about his B-Film Rock ‘n Roll Zombies even as he dispelled the popular misreadings of Hamlet. His book, Backwards & Forwards: a Technical Manual for Reading Plays, is a gem for anyone interested in the way a narrative operates. (If ‘all the world’s a stage,’ then it behooves all of us to understand how to read the play.) Armed with some borrowed wisdom and a bag of tricks, I set off.

Then the clouds begin to gather. I happened to be deep into an off-Broadway run. When you do the same show, eight times a week for over a year, a strange sense of time warp sets in. One’s mind and even spirit begins to wander – often in front of a live audience. At that time at the cusp of the millennial turn, it was clear that digital technology would reconfigure entertainment – with the possible exception of classical theater! Perhaps I had an early case of what has become known as FOMO (fear of missing out). In any case, I decided to head out into the growing digital storm, to hop from stage to software.

Traveling across boundaries requires empathy and ditching the baggage of pre-conceived notions, if not outright prejudices. In my case, I needed to ditch the notion of computer science as, well, science, which is to say, pure rationality. When I realized that software development was a creative endeavor – art as much as science – that was when the lightning struck.

I expected that I would have to learn a whole new bag of tricks. Little did I know the ones I had could be deployed in a whole new setting. Contrary to the quip about acting from the BBC’s Blackadder, actors don’t simply ‘get drunk, stick on a silly hat, and trust to luck.’ Our methodologies, analytical techniques and even jargon are capable of crossing boundaries. A play is a system, just like a piece of software. It operates according to logic of cause and effect, just like software. In a play, actors engage with one another in the pursuit of quantifiable goals – just like in software. If ‘all the world’s a stage,’ then so is a piece of software – a courtroom, a municipality, and even I daresay, a body. That doesn’t mean that you want me operating on your appendix. It does mean that having more humanists at the table would have resulted in a different sort of response to a global pandemic.

We all have things we may bring to the collective table – provided we are open to being transformed in the process. With new eyes, we may become aware of the academic rituals, political attachments, and filter bubbles that find their way into every discipline. To meaningfully encounter transdisciplinarity in the humanities, for example, we may need to integrate critical theory and empirical methodologies. The promise at the end of the day is a wider and deeper set of tools.

My old friend, the author of Rock ‘n Roll Zombies, had his own Ah-Hah Moment and began teaching lawyers how to navigate the theater of the real: the courtroom. Then he became interested in neuroscience…

The Ah-Hah Moment is just the ticket to a life-changing show of transdisciplinarity.

Trevor Anthony is a recovering actor and scholar of old & new media. He is a doctoral student at CGU.