Archive for category Technology

It Was 20 Years Ago Today…


At about this time twenty years ago I started teaching far from where I had ever lived before.  Except a year in Bologna Italy and two years in Washington DC, I had grown up and gone to college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then lived for ten years earning my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.  I taught my first class in 1989 at Minnesota, and one semester taught a course there and at both St. Olaf and Carleton College in nearby Northfield.  The year before I came to UMF I taught the year at St. Olaf as a sabbatical replacement.

As I walk through campus it strikes me how different things are, even while much looks the same.   I got my employee ID (which I should probably replace since the picture is 20 years old) at a small shack that no longer stands.  A church that sat next to campus has now become home to the Psychology department.  An old house that served a variety of functions, with special student apartments below them was replaced by a state of the art education building.  The fitness center that everyone was so proud of in 1995 now is something people hope to replace – though the programming and inside facilities have improved greatly.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy.  Luckily that happens only rarely.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy. Luckily that happens only rarely.

The old Honors house was replaced by a new state of the art dormitory, with a new house purchased across the street for the Honors program.  A $5 million dollar performing art center was built, serving the university and greater community.  Buildings were upgraded and refined.  But UMF retains the feel of community that I fell in love with my first year here.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the last twenty years is the pace of change – it’s been amazing to watch the information revolution plow forward.   In 1995 I was dismayed that research papers had to be done mostly with sources like Time and Newsweek, as the library had very little political science.  Inter-library loan existed, but was difficult to navigate.   More than once I reserved a university van to haul students to Orono so they could research in a “real” library.  That was the disadvantage of being a small rural university without a lot of money – the students didn’t have the resources they did elsewhere.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional "house" and parking lot.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional “house” and parking lot.

All that has changed!   This week I took my first year seminar students to the library to learn how to use the state of the art library website.  From their dorm room they can order books from anywhere in the world.   Books anywhere in the U Maine system arrive in two days.   More impressively is access to data bases that go far beyond what most undergraduates utilize even at those places with research libraries.   Suddenly the disadvantage of being here is gone, students don’t even have to go to the library; they find sources, the website puts it in citation format, they can download articles, and have a world of academic information at their finger tips.   Add to that what you can find on the web – statistics, tools to analyze and graphically represent statistics, etc. – and the challenge is for students not to be overwhelmed by the wealth of information and analytical tools.

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus - the Alumni Theater

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus – the Alumni Theater

After I moved here I bought some furniture and a home computer.  I had a desk top provided by the university in my office – a Pentium 100, hardwired to the internet.  At home I spent nearly $2000 to get a Pentium 75 that had a modem so I could call in to connect with the university system via phone.  Since about 2002 the university has provided laptops, meaning we no longer need a separate home computer.  And of course, now the whole campus is wifi, even outdoors.

In 1995 some faculty members and even students still resisted using e-mail.    We were flooded with memos and papers; now it’s all via e-mail.   The computer centered buzzed with students finishing and printing out papers, or surfing the net.  Now most have their own computers.   It’s been years since I’ve required hard copy of papers – now they are submitted electronically on an educational site called “Blackboard,” where I also grade and comment.  No more gradebook, Blackboard handles everything, including a forum for class discussions.

Mantor library once focused on books.  The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth!  Now it's a multi-media information center with its own cafe - it has changed with the times!

Mantor library once focused on books. The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth! Now it’s a multi-media information center with its own cafe – it has changed with the times!

When I wanted to show a film, I’d have to request a TV with a VCR be brought to the room.  Now every room is “smart,” set up for multi-media presentations.   Powerpoint wasn’t yet in use by students in 1995, and many faculty members discouraged it in favor of traditional methods.  Now, it and other presentation software get used and our job is to help students learn how to use them effectively.

I could go on and on.   In 1995 I’d trudge to the library every week to read Der Spiegel to keep up with events in Germany.  Now my Apple Watch gets alerts from Der Spiegel.  And this doesn’t even touch how much the internet has changed everything – now it’s common if a question comes up in class to have a student look up the answer.  Information on just about anything is available on demand.

The big story that fall was the trial of OJ Simpson.   My “Politics of Post-Communist Societies” class talked me into taking them to the snack bar to watch the results of the trial.   The snack bar was full as the verdict was read – I recall being amused at how angry some of the students got!  We weren’t yet talking much about the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide the year before.  Now that case is integrated into my World Politics course, and the OJ is all but forgotten.

Those days the fear was that on line universities would overtake ‘brick and mortar’ college life.  They found their niche, but the niche had limits.  Boris Yeltsin was President of Russia, Saddam Hussein was getting impatient with weapons inspectors being in Iraq over four years after the 1991 Gulf War ended, and I was enjoying the music of break out artist Alanis Morrissette.   Bill Clinton was President, but a raucous House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich was on the verge of shutting down the government to try to get Clinton to meet their demands.   At this point, Clinton looked like he might only serve one term as President.

As Bob Seger put it…”20 years now, where’d they go, twenty years, I don’t know…I sit and wonder sometimes, where they’ve gone…”   Though I have every intent to still be teaching here twenty years from now!


From the Mind of Minolta

My companion to Detroit, Italy, Germany and beyond – the Minolta SRT MC2

Sounding very much my age, I was talking to my kids about what photography was like when I was young.   The idea of not seeing the picture right away seemed odd to them, as did the notion of developing film.   I got out my old camera to show the boys and let them see how it feels/looks.    I tried to explain how you had to try to get the right shot at the start since it was expensive to develop film.    They learned to change the lens, focus (they’ve only used autofocus), and how film worked.   They attached the flash and played with that.   I tried to explain all the complex settings on the camera and the flash.   While they were interested, it was obviously a relic to them.  I may as well have been explaining Gutenberg’s printing press.

Ryan trying to get the feel of what “old fashioned” photography was like — and with that uncombed hair, he’s definitely on the right side of the camera!

One thing about my generation is that we’ve seen a large range of technological change.    I still remember dial phones, black and white pre-cable TV and adding machines with a pull handle.    When I was a kid flash cameras had these nifty little flash cubes.   Each cube had four flashes (one on each side) and the camera would turn the cube a quarter way each time.  That means you didn’t have to replace a flash bulb with every picture.

Who can forget the blue bulbs in the cubes – perfect for light new convenient cameras in the 60’s!

I’m not sure when it was, perhaps my first year of college, but I decided I wanted to get a real camera.   One where you could control the shutter speed, set it for different film speeds, determine how much light you wanted to let in, and replace lenses for long range or wide angle.

I already had a Polaroid, which despite giving instant pictures, was low quality.   I still have some in my old albums – a lefse making project in northern South Dakota and pictures of friends.   But as I saw the kinds of photos others were taking I realized I wanted something better.

So at K-Mart on the east side of Sioux Falls I bought a Yashica for about $100 (in today’s money that’s about $200).   It was nice, but I soon became dissatisfied and bought the Minolta shown above.   It cost nearly $300, which was a major investment for a college kid!

I learned to be very good with that camera.  I could frame the shot exactly how I wanted, adjust for different kinds of lighting, play with different settings, and as soon as I clicked the camera the picture was taken, exactly as it looked in the view finder.   If I set the shutter speed high enough on a sunny day I could get someone running full speed to look perfectly still — no blurrs.

The camera case is a story in and of itself.   Given the politics I present in this blog it my shock readers to find out that in college I was a college Republican (even South Dakota state PR Director), and I went to the national convention in Detroit that nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980.    I was even on the convention floor when Reagan gave his acceptance speech.  With me was my Minolta camera of course.

But at Eastern Michigan University where we “Reagan youth” were housed, a party atmosphere was the norm.   I hung out with two girls from Maine (I don’t recall their names), and traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin (at least 6″ in diameter) for a little Maine lobster sticker which I put on my case.

You can see the red Maine lobster sticker on the right hand side

I would carry that camera case with me for the next decade – always with the symbol of Maine, even though I’d never been there and had no clue that I would end up living here.  An omen?

I lived in Bologna, Italy for a year attending Johns Hopkins SAIS.   I’d travel to visit friends in Germany, taking the overnight express train to Munich through the Brenner pass (trying to sleep in the compartments – .   The villages there were picturesque in the Alps, and I made sure to take a day train once just to get photos.   Two nuns were in the compartment and pointed out photo opportunities.   Even though it was from a train chugging through the Alps one of the photos was so good that my parents had it framed.   With that camera, it was easy to take an excellent photo.

The last year I really put the camera to use has a sad ending — it was the year I lived in Germany.   First, the camera started to have mechanical problems and didn’t work well.   Second, I decided not to develop my film in Germany because it was much cheaper to develop it in the US.   So I packed the film and other things in a box and mailed it to my US address.   The box never arrived.   Dozens of rolls of film from a year in Germany gone.

Then digital photography came.   At first I hated it.  There was always a pause between when you pushed the button and when the picture got taken — or a pause afterwards as it stored it.  I found I lost my ability to take good pictures.

I finally have a digital camera I can use — a Fuji Finepix.  It has a real camera feel (though light), but at a cost of $200 it’s still far lower quality than my old Minolta.   I find my Iphone can take good pictures.   Meanwhile Minolta and Yashica are both out of business, and rather than striving for a few quality photos to save film now people snap numerous photos figuring the law of averages will give them a couple really good ones.

High end digital cameras are becoming as easy to use as the old film cameras — easy as in taking instant shots and being able to manipulate settings.   And the fact that photos are now “free” – once you buy the camera and the storage card you can take as many as you want and download them – is definitely an improvement on film.  After the experience of my lost German photos, I certainly like being able to download and save them!

And though society belongs to the youth, I count it as one blessing of getting older as having the memory of things like taking photos with my old Minolta.


Deutsches Museum: the history of technology

The magnificant Deutsches Museum!

Tuesday was a rainy day in Munich, so we took in the Deutsches Museum, an awesome monument to technology and the role of Germany in creating the world we live in now. When we arrived the students went into the first room and I went to use the toilet. I didn’t see any of them again until our arranged meeting time three and a half hours later. None of us were hiding, the museum is that immense!

Visiting the museum really helped me put into context the age we are living in, and how it marks the transition of one kind of society to another. We are leaving the machine age and entering the digital age!

I’ve never been to a museum with so many parts and sometimes full airplanes and cars on display, including jet engines, models of different types of planes, smaller plans parked or hanging from a ceiling. They also had a full display of wooden ships, both models and a full size fishing ship.

Yet more interesting to me is getting a sense of how technology has changed lives. There was an entire display on the printing press, including a replica of Gutenberg’s original, how it was improved on over the years, different styles, linotype machines, up to modern digital methods. There was an exhibit on film and camera, with hundreds of cameras up to modern digital cameras there. Kitchen equipment, electric generators, motors of all sorts, musical instruments, metallurgy, mining, tunnel building, toys, nano and bio technology, oil and gas, energy in general, space flight, glass blowing, genetic research, industrial machinery, tools, optics, atomic physics, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, astronomy, telecommunications, agricultural technology, radios…and more (even Zeppelins!)

I thought I was perhaps pushing it when I told the students to meet back in three and a half hours – I’ve seen students “do” the Uffizi in Florence in 20 minutes. Yet this was so massive you couldn’t do it properly spending the whole day.

Each of these eras had its own cultural and political structure. From the cottage textile weavers to the first factories, both politics and every day life changed dramatically as technology improved. I imagined the huge factories of the mechanical era. Or accountants working with mechanical calculators, so large and complex. The era of machines!

There was a model of the DC Douglas plane that formed the first fleet of Pan Am jets, which could go from New York to Frankfurt in 13 hours.

Looking at the first cars — some really attractive models were produced by auto companies in the 1920s — innovative, often strange, showing that there was not yet a standard design for cars.

A 1925 aluminum car was innovative!

Now we’re in the digital era, even the electronic equipment (record players, radios, etc.) was obviously from a different time. In fact, one can put a date on it. For most (but not all) the exhibits the 1980s marked the start of a shift to technology driven by our vastly expanding computer and information technology.

We’re at the start of a change that will have as dramatic an impact on our lives as the rise of industrial era had. It will change politics, culture and life in ways we can only imagine (and much is outside what we now are likely to imagine!)

And that’s probably a good thing. The era of the machine needed vast quantities of power to reshape the world. With oil running low and concerns about global warming, how we get the energy to run whatever world will emerge will have to be different. But seeing the range of innovations of the past, created often as solutions to problems of their times, I end up optimistic that the era just beginning will be better than the one just ending.


Everything Is About to Change

A 20 year old northern California blogger named Kristen Wolfe had one of her posts noticed by the Huffington Post, which reposted it.  It was entitled “Dear Customer Who Stuck Up for His Little Brother,” and recounted an experience at her place of employment (video game sales) where an athletic elder brother stood up for his younger brother against an aggressive and mean father.   The younger brother wanted to buy a video game with a female character, along with a purple controller.   The father was incensed and tried to get the boy to get a game with guns and violence — something manly.   Anyway, click the link and read the story, it was touching and brought a tear to my eye.

But this blog entry isn’t about that, but how the story spread.   Once reposted on Huffington Post it quickly became one of their most popular stories.  I came about it via Facebook.   A facebook friend named Kristine posted the link.   I read it, was moved by the story and shared it on my facebook page.   Already a number of people have shared my link, and others have shared their links.   Whether its called ‘going viral’ or spreading like wildfire, that’s how a story that 20 years ago would maybe have been told to a few friends becomes a sensation.

This is an example of what is the biggest revolution in human history so far — an information and communications revolution wider in scope and power than even the industrial revolution of Europe or the invention of the printing press.   It is the reason protests arose in Egypt a year ago, why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rocked American politics, and why the world is about to change in profound and fundamental ways.   We are living in an era of history that is blessed or perhaps cursed to be one of the most dramatic and profound.    It’s only just beginning;  everything is about to change.

We’ve seen the first inklings of change as protests swept the Mideast and even Russia.   We’ve seen power shift from states and governments first to businesses and financial institutions and likely next to NGOs and citizen movements.   This will someday spawn a fundamental political restructuring whereby the bureaucratic sovereign state will be replaced by a new political order.   Civil society will be global and connected, sharing information and undercutting local corruption.

Developing countries will be able to redefine development away from the unsustainable neo-liberal dream of constant industrial growth and materialism towards a bottom up sustainable future, connected with the world not as a periphery pawn in the global economic structure but as autonomous citizens and communities.     Markets and big money will be forced to democratize and become transparent, and the current economic crisis will demand a rethinking of the idea that consumption should be ones’ primary life goal even in the industrialized West.

States, companies and even intelligence agencies will find it ever harder to keep anything ‘top secret,’ or any operation truly covert.   The cure to global warming and our environmental crises will be a mix of technology and a new way of thinking.   Once economic growth at all costs is rejected as the primary goal in life, a sustainable future can be imagined and built.

Yes, I know.  That all sounds very utopian.   Historians out there  might point out that every major systemic change breeds war and crisis, in part because people don’t know what change is bringing and thus try desperately to hold on to the anachronistic system they’ve inherited.    I have no doubt that will happen to some extent, this is an era of both crisis and transformation – the world is in motion!

Yet a positive trend is that attitudes are changing at a scope and pace that matches technological change.   I bet if you described that scene in Kristen Wolfe’s blog to a large number of people, you’d find many siding with the father and thinking the sons were out of line.   I also bet that almost everyone who would think that is over 45 years old.    The Facebook generation is more tolerant, open minded and willing to share ideas and information.     How often do parents warn kids about posting on Facebook and decry the idea of having 300 friends and sharing life details?   The fetish for privacy of the older generation is giving way to a new openness.

Whereas my generation – the older one – tends to want a stable protected home and life-space, the younger generation is wired, connected and involved.   My generation had yuppies cocooning in the suburbs, the new generation can’t imagine going a full day without their smart phones.   It’s a new attitude which, combined with the new technology is putting us on the precipice of major cultural, global and technological change.   Enjoy the ride!


The World in 2112

Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican threw down the gauntlet asking people to put their psychic and analytical predictive powers on the line by trying to figure out what technology will be like 100 years from now.   So here are my 12 technology predictions, followed by four essentially soci0-cultural predictions (though I mix those into the technology predictions as well!)

1.  The electric grid as we know it will be a thing of the past.  Most homes will be self-sustaining, generating their own electricity.   Even urban centers that now suck up energy like there’s no tomorrow will only use the electricity they can generate, augmenting with high efficiency batteries when necessary.

2.  Homes will be heated and cooled by systems built into the house.    At various points the wall to the outside will be a heat exchange system that will operate much like a refrigerator, cooling the house in summer, reversing that in winter to heat the house.   These systems will be smart to maximize efficiency.

3.  The array of satellites now circling the globe will be replaced by a smaller number of extremely efficient satellites that bundle their functions so as to the work now done by many diverse satellites.   There will be satellite maintanence crews on orbiting space stations that can work to fix any glitches, as well as maintain efficiency.

4.  The term “wifi” will be as obsolete as “the wireless” is to talk about radio.   Like radio, ‘wifi’ connectivity will be ubiquitous, free (paid for via advertising and subsidies), and taken for granted.    It will also be universal; a penthouse in New York and a village in Guinea Bissau will have the same access.

5.  After evidence about human caused global warming became undeniable even to the skeptics in the early 21st Century, a vast program of planting trees and creating efficient oxygen generation zones first on land and then in oceans will help to turn back the tide of global climate change and create the capacity for continued sustainable development.

6.   The most impressive technological advances will come in the cost and scope of water desalinization and even water creation.   This will be driven by intense water shortages in the mid-21st Century when global climate change becomes extreme and the new oxygen generation programs will not yet have had much of an impact.   The goal will become to have clean, fresh water for everyone by 2100, and will be achieved ahead of time.

7.   A nutrition revolution will occur in the mid 21st Century as it becomes clear that the chemical supplements used in food and food packaging had been causing massive problems, especially children.  This includes an alarming increase in ADHD like symptoms, autism, other mental problems, obesity and the weakening of immune systems.  Calling this the equivalent to how Rome drank leaded water and wine without realizing they were poisoning themselves, chemists, farmers and the food industry will become determined to turn around the “barbaric practices” of the 20th Century (which started in the 1980s).   Aided by a new global regulatory scheme, an array of ‘safe’ foods will take over.  These will range from ‘natural organics,’ grown on farms in ways similar to the early 1900s and “Repli-food,” which literally  will manufacture food out of a mix of natural materials much like the ‘replicators’ on Star Trek.   That food will be much cheaper than the ‘natural organics.’

8.   The same technology that opens the door to Repli-food will also create the capacity to construct complex materials and objects out of basic molecular raw materials.    The most important benefit of this will be the ability to manufacture synthetic minerals (compounds able to serve the same function) and other materials that will run low due to over mining (copper, zinc, etc.)

9.  Global monetary union leads to the obsolescence of cash.   Information on ones’ wealth will be kept on central banking computers and payment made through recognition software (similar to what we have as retinal or fingerprint recognition, but less invasive and more precise).

10.  Throughout the century traditional war will be replaced by what we’d call cyberwar, as a cat and mouse game will rage for decades between those wanting to disrupt the technological systems underlying civilization and those protecting them.   Actual hot war will limited to third world regions and the terror onslaught of 2030.    That wave of terrorism will not be driven by religious fundamentalism but anger about relative deprivation and the impact of global warming on Sub-Saharan Africa.   This will motivate major developments in the ability to scan for potential nuclear, chemical or biological devices.   By 2050 this technology, combined with an economic rebirth of Africa and growing prosperity, will end the great terror wave.

11.   Medical technology will advance to the point that invasive surgery will become obsolete.   A mix of genetic screening and proactive care will make most illnesses and major diseases a thing of the past.   Cancer, heart disease, flu, the common cold, and infections like strep throat will be the stuff of history books.   Back pain, head aches, migraines, and even sore muscles will be easily cured.  The elderly will talk about how painful and difficult existence had been back before medical science came of age.   This will be done almost completely without what we now call pharmaceuticals.   Using powerful drugs to address minor symptoms will be seen as one of the major errors of early medical science.     Life expectancy will rise to well over 100, though efforts to halt aging or implant brains into robotic bodies will fail completely.   Philosophers will say that the technological barrier to overcoming age and death is so immense that it seems humans are not meant to be able to cheat death.

12.   Modern physics will unify all forms of energy into one force, thereby solving the space-time paradox and uniting relativity with quantum mechanics.  This will be done via the holographic principle, meaning that all of what we see and experience is a projection of some sort.  This information will be key to the technologies mentioned above (especially replicating food and minerals, as well as medical science).   The question of what it means to be human and spirituality will rise in importance.   Religions will adapt to these developments, but weaken in the face of a ‘new spirituality’ that defies dogma.

Political Predictions

1.   The sovereign state as we know it will disappear.   Old state borders will still be known, but mostly as historical trivia.   Most of the decision making will be local/regional.   The Global Union (GU) will govern transnational issues such as money, trade, security (assuring local and regional conflicts don’t lead to war) and policies necessitating cooperation across regions.     The GU will have limited powers and full transparency will be demanded — all meetings, documents, and discussions are available in what we would call “on line.”

2.  The new discoveries in physics and the emergence of a holographic principle theory of reality will lead to a growth of non-religious spirituality which many religious people will view as an attempt to use science to create a world religion.  This will bring about a series of protests by various faiths and ultimately an agreement within the GU charter that freedom of and tolerance of diverse religious belief is a core human right.   By 2112 religious conflict will be at an historical low, though practitioners of the “traditional” religions will bemoan the weakness of their faiths.

3.  Neither capitalism nor socialism will survive the 21st Century.  In part this is because technological progress will make work as traditionally defined all but irrelevant.  So much work will be done by machine that humans will not be near as important for  producing stuff (though some will guide the automated factories, develop new software, support the global infrastructure, etc.).  At first this will lead to a large maldistribution of wealth as those who own the machinery amass large profits while human workers become severely underpaid since they will not be in demand.

Over time demands for change will grow, and as power is localized an agreement will be reached to guarantee everyone certain core basics (education, shelter, food, health care, equal protection, access to clean water, etc.)

With the localization of power, people then either work on infrastructure or within the robotic productivity realm, or on tasks within their community to earn Taurins (the global currency unit) for doing things that increase the quality of life.   Communities also reach agreement with industries to share ownership.   The wealthy remain wealthier than the rest (and those working to maintain the infrastructure and robotic industries earn the most), but competition will become less for wealth and things (since things will be abundant) and more for improving the quality of life and learning.

4.   In the US, families and communities will have a comeback with the localization of power and the shift of emphasis away from materialism and consumption.   The 21st Century will be rough, but we’ll make it to a much better 22nd Century!

Happy 2012!


“The Problem’s Plain to see…

…too much technology
machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
— Styx, “Mr. Roboto” (1982)

In the nearly thirty years since Dennis DeYoung of Styx penned those lines, the growth of technology has multiplied.   In 1982 the internet was an unknown form of communication between science departments of a few large research centers.   The personal computer was on the market, but still rare and without operating systems that made use easy.   Satellite phones were rare, expensive, large and clunky.   Most people had never seen one, let alone used one.

On television cable programming was just beginning to expand.  MTV had already debuted, as had CNN.   At this point they were still experiments, no one knew if they would succeed.    There were news reports that the Japanese were developing the capacity to put music on discs that could be laser read, but if you wanted music you either had to put on a record album or cassette tape.    VCRs were the new high tech toy.   Not only could you tape your favorite shows and watch them again later, but places renting movies in VCR form were popping up, meaning you could watch an old film without commercials at your leisure.   People no longer were limited to watching what happened to be on television at the time they wanted to watch.    When you photographed people or places you took care to try to get a good shot.  Developing film was expensive, and you wouldn’t know how it turned out until you got the prints back from the camera shop.

At the time, of course, we thought we were living in a world filled with technological wonder.   The VCR is hyper-cool if you don’t know about DVDs, streaming video, or DVRs.    The Minolta SLR camera with different lenses and filters made it easier than ever to take high quality photos.   Color TVs were increasingly affordable as the old black and white sets disappeared and Sony’s new expensive “walk man” allowed you to play cassette tapes in a small portable device with headphones.   One could conceivably jog and listen to music at the same time.  How cool is that!   So much for transistor radios!   Home movies were really are (and the equipment expensive and bulky), but a few people had a screen and projector to look at slides.

Some cars even buttons to roll down windows or even lock the car.   That seemed a bit excessive — one can easily roll a window up and down (and the car didn’t have to be on) and why have a labor saving device for something as simple as pushing down a car lock!?   Pinball machines were still king, but Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and other “video games” were becoming popular.   The Atari company even put out a machine you could hook to your TV to play such favorites as “missile command.”   Video games on your television?   Wow!

One good thing about being 50 is that I got to experience first hand this remarkable era of technological advancement.  The last thirty years have seen life become fundamentally altered.    As a student in high school and college I’d go use the IBM selectric typewriter my dad’s secretary had whenever I could.  That had a button that would erase a mistake (white out the error) and it was easy to type on.    Alas, I often had to re-type whole pages thanks to a typo or margin error, and if anything was revised it would often mean retyping the whole paper.

In college researching a paper required a trip to the library.   One became adept at using card catelogs, knowing the library of congress scheme of arranging subjects, and plugging dimes into the photo copy machine to copy magazine or journal articles.    I was lucky to be a fast typist — most boys hadn’t learned to type.  I was one of only a few in my typing class back in 8th grade, wanting to someday become a sports writer.  Girls learned to type to become secretaries.   Boys, of course, would be the bosses using Dictaphones (which were already making short hand obsolete).

So while my friends tried to cajole their girl friends to type up their papers, I could just sit at my type writer and work.   Yet we were the pinnacle of technology, a TV and small refrigerator in every dorm room, and nice stereo systems – the best had components, a tuner, amp, a couple large speakers, a nice turntable and a tape deck.

My girlfriend at the time was studying computer science — learning languages like Basic, Pascal, and Cobol.   I’d go into the computer lab sometimes and try to create programs — one where the computer asked questions and then came up with a personality profile was my best.   Of course then Bill Gates would come and create an operating system that took away the need to program your computer (remember when one had to know html to write a web page in the early nineties?)

Now my kids can’t comprehend why the TV at a hotel can’t be paused or set to record shows.   They have told me we should be able to watch on demand any show on the program guide.  “In a few years,” I replied, realizing that may indeed be the case.   Students can revise papers constantly without even printing them out.   Almost any question can be answered via google, while youtube provides videos of just about anything you might want to watch.   You can do better research from a poor rural university than you used to be able to do at all but the best schools.

Music is now portable, you can have a vast array of music on demand on gadgets as small the adapters one used to have to use to play 45 RPM records on a turntable.   Everything can be downloaded, traded, and even movies and TV shows can be watched on devices one carries in ones’ pocket.    Where once we had to call each other, meet at the mall or library to hang out, or as teens cruise downtown to run into friends, now there’s facebook and texting.     We used to be able to escape our parents easily — once we were out the door, we were out of touch (and out of reach).   Now there are cell phones, tracking software, and constant contact.    The internet allows communication across cultures and contexts.

Is there too much technology?  Does all of this dehumanize us?   At one level yes.  All technology even going back thousands of years removes us a bit from the state of nature.  Yet with all due respect to Rousseau, this only means that we are able to alter what is human, perhaps even changing human nature.    It may be de-humanization compared to what we were before, but since we humans are constructing our new selves, it’s still human.    And while the computer, texting and social media are altering who and what we are, the book, telegraph and postal service did that to earlier humans.   So, though Dennis DeYoung’s lyrics are often prophetic, I don’t think there is too much technology — now or in 1982.


Facebook Nation

A nation is usually defined as a group of people who identify with each other due to a common bond.   To be politically relevant, this bond has to innately connected to identity, such as ethnicity or language.  A nation is, as Benedict Anderson put it, an “imagined community.”   It isn’t based on personal interactions, a choice of who to align oneself with, or a clear objective rationale.   Rather, people for whatever reason identify with a particular trait or idea, and then see themselves as part of a community.

Nations are therefore historical and social constructs, existing only because people have chosen to define themselves as unified by a particular label.   Moreover, nations emerged in Europe with the rise of modernism, as groups started to differentiate themselves on the basis of language and perceived ethnic identity.    Before nations, the primary source of European identity was the Church.   All Europeans were Christians, members of the holy Catholic Church, unified in Christ.  A French speaking peasant and a German speaking peasant didn’t feel a sense of being French or German — they’d probably never meet each other, and the language they used or where they lived didn’t factor much into identity.  France might exist on a map, but it was abstract.

Napoleon Bonaparte changed all that.   After the French revolution France descended into chaos, as the revolutionaries realized that reason and rational thought, while very useful in criticizing the old order, didn’t give them a clear set of principles for how to govern.     Napoleon took power, and soon turned to the imagery of the France to create a new form of identity.

The French tricolor, once a battle flag, became a sacred symbol of the state.   We feel the impact of Napoleon’s efforts today, when you look at controversies that arise over the American flag.   There is nothing truly sacred about a flag, but it becomes a focal point of that imagined common identity.   The power of nationalism was obvious as a country that went from bankruptcy to revolution to chaotic weakness came together to conquer Europe.

Nationalism replaced religion as the primary mode of identity in the modern era.     The idea that Christians were slaughtering Christians in World Wars I and II was irrelevant; what mattered was that Germans, French, British and Russians were fighting.    To be sure, Christians had fought Christians during the reformation, but those fights were about religion — each side felt the other had the “wrong” interpretation of the faith.   By the modern era, it simply didn’t matter, nation trumped faith.   The power of nationalism is intense, because it joins people together in a common, collective identity, often able to be manipulated by skillful political leaders.

In an era of globalization, these modern notions of national identity are breaking down, especially with young people.   Not that nationalism is disappearing.   Indeed, while nations themselves may be imagined communities, they do attest to something more fundamental about humans — we are social creatures whose identity cannot be determined through purely individual means.   At one level this is obvious — every attribute, description, and label I give myself comes mediated through a language.  By definition humans are products of culture and history, if any of us were born in a different time or place we’d be fundamentally different people.

Yet humans are also individuals.  This dual nature explains so much political acrimony, as people tend to emphasize one over the other, rather than think critically about how they intersect.  We have individual identities connected to collective identities.    That is what makes nationalism such a potent force, if leaders can manipulate our sense of identity and command loyalty, they can unleash collective power, often in destructive ways that damage individual liberty and autonomy.

Nationalism in that traditional sense may be fading, if what I said about the obsolescence of the centralized bureaucratic state is accurate.   If central states are less dominant, then national identity will lose its centrality.   In that sense it will go the path of religious identity, remaining important, often powerful, but not central.

Consider Facebook.  I have about 200 facebook friends, though most of them are people I would otherwise have no contact with.   Some are old friends from college or grad school, some are colleagues, and some are actual family and “real” friends.    This list includes students who were on various travel courses I was part of, and we friended each other primarily to share pictures.  Now I read about their job hunts, new children, and other life events, knowing what is happening in a way I otherwise could not.   Unlike some faculty members, I have no problem being ‘facebook friends’ with students.

People also organize political campaigns or promote causes, comment on each others’ status, and it as entertaining way to feel part of other peoples’ lives, some of whom I wouldn’t recognize if they greeted me on the street.   As I glance through this, I wonder what this says about identity and connections in the future.    I get amused by folk of my generation who find facebook almost scandalous due to its lack of privacy.  “What these kids share! Don’t they realize this is out there forever,” one colleague murmured.   Yes, they do.   And they don’t care.   It’s a different world.

Facebook now has 500 million members, and is growing strong.   Its mode of communication, lay out, and little controversies are common to most of its users, as are popular posts and links.   It generates discussion, debate and can spread knowledge about both important major events or about how many times a new parent had to get up to change diapers last night.

In a sense it’s like a nation — a post-modern nation where collective identity is diffuse and diverse.   Unlike ethnic nations with strict rules on language and “blood,” Facebook Nation is defined by whatever the users want to identify with.   The connections are loose, yet powerful.   Students admit to spending too much time on facebook, and there is a sense of community in keeping up with what others are doing, or sharing a thought or idea, knowing that it’ll at show up on a couple hundred screens.   In that sense, it commands loyalty and respect, even if there is no central power pulling the strings or manipulating the users.

If so, that’s a good thing.   Facebook Nation will launch no wars, operate no sweat shops, and force no one to join who does not want to be there.   It is a new kind of collective identity, one which seems to exercise little power over the politics and social conflicts of the day, but a lot of power over how people spend their time.   And given the damage done by state-centric modern nationalism, a decentralized post-modern facebook nation is a welcome change.   It isn’t itself the “face” of the future, but it may be an indication of where we as a society are heading, thanks to the technology driven information revolution we’re experiencing.

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Power to the People

(Part 2 of a two part post)

As I noted yesterday, the great compromise between labor and business ushered in an era of record prosperity and stability for the industrialized west.  It expanded opportunities for the lower classes, gave most people access to education, health care, and a functioning social welfare net, all while allowing businesses to prosper, expand, and innovate.   After the ideological battles of the first half of the 20th century, the success of the second half is astounding.

Yet we are in crisis.  Most industrialized states have government debt of 60% of GDP or more, while private and corporate debt is often three times as high.   So much debt in every sector of the economy cannot be sustained.  The cheap credit bubbles that led us here have burst, and it’s still possible that we are at the start of “Great Depression II.”   Moreover, the crisis is global, and the economic re-balancing it entails could breed instability and conflict.   The 65 year run of prosperity and stability in the industrialized world could be nearing an end.

So how do we prevent that from happening?  First and foremost is to avoid sacrificing ‘the great compromise.’   The compromise had two aspects.   First, the workers got true opportunity to succeed and have their children live a life better than theirs, thanks to a social welfare system that guaranteed the basics and protected worker rights.    Second, capitalism and markets could function, allowing businesses to innovate, profit and grow, thus yielding a materially prosperous society.    Now both the left and the right risk going beyond the terms of the compromise, and thus endangering it.

The left risks expanding governmental power and social welfare guarantees to the point that they do not only assure equal opportunity and basic needs, but are used instead to shape and mold outcomes.   The right runs the risk of going beyond the terms of the compromise by empowering big business to begin exploiting again — this time third world workers via globalization.   If production shifts to the third world, the short term benefit of lower prices for us is offset by long term problems of economic sustainability.   The middle class will shrink, the number of workers will decline, and less profitable and productive service sector jobs will dominate.   Working class opportunity will fade, and you’ll end up with a bifurcated society of the very wealthy and a large and relatively poorer lower middle class.

But how do we prevent the compromise from fraying at the edges, with both the left and the right breaking its terms until they set up a crisis that comes equipped with its own ideological holy war?   How do we avoid the kind of instability that marked the first half of the 20th Century?   The answer may be surprising: devolve power.  Give localities, states, and regions more money and control of policies and regulations.    Give people more power over big corporations and financial institutions.

This is possible because now even small towns have access to data and information that used to require central bureaucratization.   With resources, a state or county could run a health care system or aid for poor families in a way that used to require more central control.   The problem with central control is that bureaucracies are bad at adapting to particular circumstances.   They thus require ‘standard operating procedures’ that work adequately well most of the time, but rarely at an optimal level, and sometimes creating absurd Kafkaesque outcomes.   Bureaucracies are also very conservative, and do not adapt well to change — not a good attribute in this era of rapid and unexpected change.   All this makes bureaucracies inefficient and expensive.

If this could be localized, money could be spent more efficiently as local idiosyncrasies are taken into account.  The staff would be better able to adapt policies to fit individual cases that don’t fit the norm.    Broad guidelines could come from above, but everything from qualifying income levels to the amount of aid could be related to local prices and contexts.   Moreover, people would be empowered to define what problems should be addressed and even develop alternate solutions.   Before the digital age, this was simply beyond the scope of local or even state governments.    Not any more.

One can imagine the central state (or for the US, the federal government) shrinking over time, as more power and resources are given to states, while state governments would devolve more power and authority to the locals, something Jerry Brown already proposes for California. Thus while many programs might be reduced or eliminated, there would be more local control over the specifics of how this would happen.   The social welfare side of the great compromise could be made sustainable even in lean economic times.

The same logic could apply to big money.   Big corporations and financial institutions often have more power than most sovereign states.   They lack the protections of sovereignty, but also the burdens.   They are immensely powerful, and can use that wealth to manipulate political outcomes and circumvent both governments and markets.   Their flaws, as with the flaws of big government, come from too much centralized power and too little transparency and oversight.

Just as the left has to question its devotion to big government, the right has to recognize that big business is not somehow pure and uncorrupted just because its not government.   Centralized power acts like centralized power, whether its a government or a corporation.    The key here is to open up and democratize corporations — with the effect of altering them as much as the radical devolution of government power would alter the state.

Right now corporations are assumed to be responsible only to their shareholders, with their primary job being to maximize profits.  Yet in the US, at least, corporations are considered “individuals” before the law, like any citizen.  But while we tell our children that citizens have responsibilities, and we aren’t to just selfishly try to enrich ourselves with no regard for morality or others, that is precisely what we say corporations are supposed to do.

What if corporate decision making bodies, such as boards of directors and executive committees, had to include members of the public who represent the interests of communities, workers, environmentalists, and others.   The idea is that corporations need accountability and transparency just as governments do; big government and big business are more alike than different.    The choice to relocate in Vietnam would depend not just on the bottom line, but also the impact on the community.   Confidential information would now be open to the public (something Wikileaks like developments will cause anyway).

Since businesses are global, the difficulty would be in defining the relevant communities here, simple geography won’t suffice.   Over time the digital age may prove this less problematic than it seems to those of us still living with a world view shaped in the 20th Century.   Diverse populations can be brought together in communities rather easily, as Facebook illustrates.    Corporations will still generate profits, innovate, compete in the market, and remain capitalist.   They will simply be run with broader accountability, reflecting their responsibilities to both shareholders and the larger public.

In short, a radical rethinking of both government and business can save the ‘great compromise’ and bring us an era of continued prosperity.   It is premised on bringing the old slogan “power to the people” to life.    Real power, power over governments and large corporations, will be held in part by people in local and regional governments, now capable of getting information and acting on it thanks to the dramatic transformation of social, economic and political life caused by the information/internet revolution.



A Wikileaks Kind of World

War has broken out!  So scream headlines on various websites and blogs.  Bowing to pressure from the US, major credit card companies and Pay Pal stop allowing citizens to contribute to and support Wikileaks, leading to a massive cyber attack against those companies, even shutting down Mastercard’s on line system.   Groups opposed to Wikileaks have struck back against the group “anonymous” who has been leading these attacks — as of this writing, if you click that link you’ll get an “account suspended” page.   Wikileaks has also been removed from servers; four days ago I went there and read their self-promotion; now the site is off limits.   You can still reach it, but only through round about means.

Watching all the scampering about in response to a large but relatively vanilla set of leaks, it occurs to me that this isn’t so much about the leaks themselves, but a generation of politicians and leaders who don’t quite understand the new world they now inhabit.   Old methods of controlling information and responding to threats don’t work.   This case is important less for its substance (it’s unlikely the leaks did much if any real harm to the US) and more for what it symbolizes.    It demonstrates that the new cyber-world we’ve created doesn’t play by 20th Century rules.   Technology may be rendering traditional politics obsolete, and at this point leaders don’t know how to respond.

It happened before.   Before 1439, printing a book required extensive work to copy by hand the words, and bind them in a usually lavish form.  Few people could afford books, Latin was the language in which most were written (though in the 14th century there started to be more vernacular literature — Dante’s Inferno, for example).   The church controlled most of the books, and the flow of ideas across Europe or even cities was limited.   Oral communication, including oral histories, was the standard way people shared ideas.   That meant, of course, that disseminating ideas was difficult, and if you challenged authority you got noticed before too many people had latched on to the challenge.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg developed the first (western) printing press.   Suddenly the mass production of books and pamphlets was possible; an information revolution began.  Even after the printing press had been developed it took awhile before literacy to advance to the point that there was a public demand for the printed word.   But by the 1500s ideas could spread quickly.

The Catholic Church learned what this meant the hard way.   When the Pope decided that St. Peter’s basilica needed to be rebuilt to reflect the grandeur befitting the center of the Roman Catholic church, he allowed the printing press to be used to print off papal indulgences, giving people time off from purgatory.   These could be in effect “sold” — given to people who donated to the new basilica.  It worked, giving us the splendor we now find at the Vatican.   Yet it also led to the decline of church power, as one Catholic monk, Martin Luther, appalled by what he saw as a practice which threatened peoples’ salvation, put together a list of 95 issues about church practices he thought should be questioned and discussed.   He penned them in Latin, and nailed them to his university-church’s equivalent of the common bulletin board:  a large church door.

He expected an academic debate.   He got much more.  Some of his friends translated the list into German, and used the printing press spread Luther’s complaints across German speaking lands.   Soon a revolt was brewing, called the reformation.    It wasn’t that suddenly people started to agree with Luther’s argument; rather, these ideas proved able to unite Germans already chaffing at following dictates from Rome.   Luther’s complaint sparked a rebellion which led to over 100 years of instability and war, culminating in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.    The treaty put forth a new political entity: the sovereign territorial state.

The Church was pushed from the pinnacle of power for good, the old medieval political system of decentralized and local authority was destroyed.   An entire new political and cultural world was created, all because communication changed and ideas were able to be spread rapidly and with ease.  The printing press allowed mass education, helped create modern nationalism, and made the industrial revolution and enlightenment possible.    Propaganda, advertising, and even consumerism could not exist without the printing press.   We live in era of the printing press, though that era may be giving way.

The internet and corresponding information technology could impact our political world with as much force and substance as the printing press did the medieval world.   In other words, it could render current political structures and practices obsolete, forcing the entire system to transform.   Like Gutenberg’s invention, it has allowed ideas and information to flow in a fundamentally different and more widespread manner.   Information can be stored electronically and then publicized for the world to see.   Such documents can’t be destroyed, do not suffer physical limits, and cross borders and continents with ease.

The modern Nation State may be the functional equivalent of the 16th Century Church.  It dominates politics, and has considerable control over information available to its citizens.  The state’s control over information allows it to maintain physical control of territory, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of political violence.   A state can go to war, but if non-state actors do so, it’s despicable terrorism.

Does this new technology threaten the sovereign state?   Will the state find that the wide dissemination of diverse views and information previously unobtainable threatens its status?   Will the politics of the Westphalian era, beginning in 1648, give way to a new era, one where sovereignty, territoriality and statehood no longer define the fundamentals of global politics?   If so, what will the new world look like, and how violent/difficult will the transition be?

As the “cyberwars” over Wikileaks rage, this whole issue is symbolic of the “world in motion.”   We live in a Wikileaks kind of world now, and no one is quite sure what that means for the future.

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For some reason you’re questioning why
I always believe it gets better
One difference between you and I
Your heart is inside your head
from “Changes” by Yes from the album 90125

Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of change, and right now culture and society is on the tipping point of radical and revolutionary changes.   Why do I say that?

Technology. Although technological development has been a constant for the last 200 years, the rapid rise of new information technologies is certain to not only cause a radical transformation of politics and life, but may ultimately undermine the modern state system and global politics as we know it.   Just as the printing press brought down the old system dominated by the Catholic church creating the sovereign state era, this technology will be just as momentous.  But it’s not the technology alone that brings or shapes the change.

Globalization. This is obvious and often referenced so I’ll be short: global trade, global communication, culture clashes and a rapidly expanding world economy create unprecedented conditions world wide.   The old system (and the old way of thinking) can’t handle it.  (And, of course issues like climate change are all connected here).

Superpower blues. The Soviet Union already collapsed, and the US is struggling to maintain its position as the dominant world power.   Yet with private debt over 100% of GDP, industrial production down, and public debt nearing 100% of GDP, the US is unlikely to continue its every upward climb without going through an economic restructuring.  The US political system, however, is locked in partisan fights, while the public is so used to consumption without production that they see any kind of change in our ways as some kind of defeat.   Moreover, changes in warfare make having a large traditional military less important than before.

Change in culture.   To some, this is the scariest, and I think it’s the most important.   Change is trumping long held traditions.   For example, not that long ago suggesting gay marriage was radical — it was even seen as far out to propose civil unions.   Now it is common place and spreading.   The reason was crystallized in a ruling the other day overturning California’s proposition 8 banning gay marriage (though the case will be appealed).   The judge, a Reagan appointee, went through the evidence and came to the inevitable conclusion that there is no rational reason to discriminate against homosexual couples wanting to marry.

They aren’t worse parents, children aren’t better off raised by parents of different genders, there is no damage to society, and no rational reason to deny them that right.   In the trial, none could be presented by those arguing to keep the ban in place.  Simply, more than ever before people are rejecting tradition in favor of rationalism.  The only reason to deny gay marriage is “that’s just not done.   Marriage is between a man and a woman.”   That isn’t a rational reason, but one overtly pointing to tradition.

This takes us back to technology.   The upcoming generation is not as attached to things that seemed “normal” and “natural” twenty or more years ago.    They are living through tremendous change and have gotten used to it.   They ride change like a surfer rides the waves.    They may embrace a tradition for the sake of novelty, but more than ever in the past, they roll with the changes.

This isn’t exactly new.  The enlightenment was built on the idea that reason and rational thought was trumping tradition and religion.   This led to the downfall of monarchies, decreased power for the church, rising divorce rates, interracial marriage, the overthrow of slavery, giving women equal rights, etc.   All of those things were the result of letting go of tradition when it seemed to have no rational basis to continue.    Yet with globalization and the information revolution, change is spreading and increasing in speed and scope.

In Japan the young generation is breaking with traditions that just twenty years ago seemed to define Japanese life completely.   In the Muslim world women are pushing back against oppression, and youth that Bin Laden wanted to recruit find themselves more drawn to what the market has to offer.    Muslim conservatives fear western culture far more than they fear western bullets.   And they should, this is a wave of change they aren’t going to be able to stop.

The so called ‘tea party’ movement in the US is a reaction to  this change.    For the most part, the fears of folk like Glenn Beck reflect the fact “America has changed,” and they want the America they grew up in.   To be sure they idealize it, but they are sensing the same thing I’m describing: traditions are dying faster than ever, and change is speeding up.    Could a Barack Hussein Obama have been elected twenty years ago?    I think many people can’t comprehend that Americans are not standing up to stop this change, hence it must be from an evil liberal media or some group that ‘hates America’ and wants to destroy it by changing it.

This isn’t going to end.  There may be political turmoil back and forth, and if the economy collapses instability could develop.   Overall, though, we’re entering a new era of human history.    I mean that.   This is like the time after 1439 (when the printing press was invented) and people were just beginning to spread ideas and expand information.   Then it brought the renaissance, rise of science, fall of the church and the enlightenment, as Europe leaped ahead of very one to dominate the planet by the 1800s.

This transformation is global in scope, and we’re about where the old era gives way to the new.   Just as Gutenberg couldn’t imagine the enlightenment and Luther had no idea how he would contribute to religious change, people now really can only guess at where this might go.   Traditions no longer have their hold.   Universities, newspapers, television, sovereign states, and other institutions that seem permanently embedded in society will vanish if a rational reason does not exist for them to continue.

While some can rage against change, I think its better to embrace it, recognizing it has to be guided and can be negative.    Rationality and reason are only tools, they do not provide meaning — and that weakness of enlightenment thought will only be magnified as global transformation unfolds.     That’s why thinkers like Edmund Burke put so much stock in tradition: it is the glue that holds society together and provides meaning.

Yet humans need meaning and purpose, and if traditions are disappearing and reason dominates, there needs to be a way to look beyond pure rationalism and create or discover meaning.   Or, to relate back to the song lyrics quoted above:  We can’t lock our hearts inside our heads if we want things to get better.