Describe your latest project.
I'm currently involved in a number of projects for example, a paper for the Federal Trade Commission written with a group at Berkeley's law school on the best ways to promote Americans' privacy on the web; a new edition of my textbook Media Today; and a reader aimed to encourage critical thinking by college students about advertising and consumer culture. Longer term, I've begun research for a book-length work on the role that media in the 20th century played in Americans' approaches to time, how the new media environment of the 21st century is disrupting those routines, and the impact that is having on the way we live and think.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
I wouldn't say that I am "inspired" to write. Rather, I would say that I feel compelled to write, both because I am a professor and writing is part of my work, and because I want to share my ideas with people beyond my university. Once I do sit down to write, if things are going well there is a certain "flow" that takes over in my working with the material. The manuscript sometimes begins to develop themes that I would not have predicted when I started to write it. It's a fascinating experience to find yourself pulled in unexpected and sometimes exciting directions as you struggle with the logic of the paragraphs and their relationship with one another.
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
The teachers who most influenced me were oddly not my favorite ones. I learned most (at the time, and looking back) from teachers who were ignorant, or foolish, or both. One example: I had an argument with my fifth grade teacher about whether Vaseline is the name of a particular product or a type of products. I claimed that it was a brand name only, and she disagreed. I went home and looked at the jar and satisfied myself that the generic name was in fact petroleum jelly. The incident reinforced in my mind the importance of not believing people in authority simply because of their position.
What do you do for relaxation?
One thing I like to do is work out at the local Y's gym three times a week. Part of the enjoyment is that when I use the treadmill at 4 miles per hour I read a book that has nothing to do with my work. Such books take a long time to finish (since I go at 4 MPH for only about 18 minutes each time). But I've read a gamut of fascinating books, from various histories of diseases in the United States and elsewhere to analyses and histories of Broadway musicals to a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
I also enjoy photography, especially when I travel. During the past few years my work has taken to Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, St. Galen, Budapest, and Vilnius, among other interesting spots. A digital SLR camera and a couple of good lenses help me see the visits in ways that I wouldn't if I didn't have a viewfinder to look through.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
I enjoyed series books when I was young. In first and second grade, I read all of the "Eddie" and "Betsy" books by Carolyn Haywood. In third through fifth grade I read all the Tom Swift, Jr., books; I still have the entire set in my office. I also read as many of the Landmark and We Were There history books as I could get my hands on.
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
On a global basis the mobile phone has great potential for making people's lives better because it can reach people in places unreachable by relatively expensive laptop or desktop computers. It will in not too many years have the computing capacity, memory, and screen resolution at a low price to help workers and students in poor countries to access information that can help them work more efficiently and learn about innovations that can improve their working conditions, health-care and agricultural knowledge, and general quality of life.