Archive for category Technology

Instant Information!

Perhaps the most profound effect of the information revolution is the fact that information is now available at an instant, almost anywhere.   Often it is trivial, but consider one example.   We saw the musical Chicago at the Maine State Music Theater this weekend and read that the woman who played Velma had appeared on Desperate Housewives. There was no mention of who she played or when.   After less than a minute of searching on the Droid (mobile phone with internet access) my wife  found out it was season one, episode twenty, and she played a salesperson.    We were in the car, having just left the theater.

Almost always if a question arises, an answer can be found fast.  Information that at one point would require trips to the library, inquiries at town hall, or even travel abroad now can be found quickly.     I had a research grant to live a year in Germany to study party and media archives in Bonn for my dissertation in 1991-92.   Now I could do that kind of research from my office, printing and down loading files that twenty years ago I had to to Europe, find on microfiche and then copy.

What does this all mean?   What will be the cultural, political and social impact of being able to find whatever information we want instantaneously?

There are a number of positive implications that are pretty obvious.   I’ve always believed that the more knowledge you have about something (an event, a country to be visited, a play, etc.) the more valuable the experience.    We can learn about the context of just about every thing we do, and thereby get more out of what we do.   If I go see a play I’ve never heard of, I routinely research it and afterwards learn more about the actors, writer, and meaning of the play.  When traveling it’s easier to learn the historical and cultural context of the places visited.   Used properly, instant information is also a way to instantly enrich ones’ experience of life.

Problem solving becomes easier.   No matter what realm the problem is in, you can find a solution on line, often in the form of others posing that problem and getting answers on line.   If you want to buy a product there are on line reviews and ways to compare.    Understanding world events is easier; you do not have to rely on Fox or CNN, you can read news sources from around the world and from a variety of perspectives.

Looked at from the perspective of history, the rise of the internet and instant information is of such profound significance as the development of the printing press in 1439.   The printing press changed how people thought, communicated and ultimately helped usher in a revolution in politics and society that allowed the Europeans to conquer the world.  Sure, the steam engine, science, and enlightenment thought were more directly causal, but without the printing press ideas could not have spread so fast, changing the entire face of the planet.

There is no reason to doubt that our current information revolution will have a similar impact.   Everything about our world is set to change.   When the generation growing up now reaches retirement age, their world will likely be organized much differently.   Even the sovereign state could disappear, as well as the very way of life we associate with modern America.  Because humans avoid cognitive dissonance and tend to expect things to continue as they have been, the inevitability of change is often unrecognized, and even denied as it occurs.  This means that the  way people think about the world changes only in response to events, usually involving generational change.   A new generation raised in different circumstances embraces what the older generation rejected.  However, since the older generation has political power, they often react to changes in a way that risks violence and instability — they try to force an old way of thinking on new circumstances.  Will the same thing happen here?

Perhaps not.  My generation, now the ‘older in power’ generation (Obama is my age, after all) is used to change.  We’ve lived from pre-cable TV and vinyl record albums to I-pods and hulu.com.    We’ve lived the 1980 Rush lyric, “changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”    Hopefully, we’ll prove adept at navigating this new era — giving the debt we’re leaving the next generation, we owe them at least that!    But what challenges might arise from “instant information?”

1)  The demise of the sovereign state.   As interdependence grows, and the US economy needs oil from the Mideast, cooperation from China and other states to whom we are in debt, and as cultures clash across borders, sovereignty as we’ve known it will be challenged.   We’ll still have legal entities called states, but the idea of complete independence and ‘splendid isolation’ are already gone.    That guarantees a nationalist backlash and a bout of xenophobia and fear, whether it’s about multilateral treaties, immigration, or relations with others.   We have to navigate this change safely.

2) Terrorism and WMD.   The good news is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists are being rejected by most of the Muslim world.  They may not like the US, but they don’t want the anti-modern spartan life demanded by the extremists.  They don’t want war and death, they want their own culture to undergo peaceful change.  The bad news is that terrorism and WMD levels the playing field, and renders a country like the US vulnerable in a way not previously experienced (before 9-11-01).  The next uprising may be based on economic rebellion from Africa, or perhaps an anti-Yankee wave from Latin America.  We have to not over-react, and pro-actively deal with the roots of such potential uprisings, not waiting until it’s too late.   Terror networks know how to use the ‘instant information’ to design weapons, plan attacks and communicate.   They cannot be defeated by military means alone, but by making their message unpopular in their own cultures.

3)  Lack of Communication.   This seems odd, but think of it as the equivalent of yellow journalism with the printing press.   Blogs, diverse news sources, and a lack of standards  means people tend to be drawn to messages that fit what they already believe, and which often create a sense of righteousness against the “other side.”  Rather than people with different views communicating, they might simply fight — like the tea party vs. the left.    If that stymies political adaption to change, it could create paralysis when we need action.   We need to talk about big issues across party and ideological lines if we are to adapt to these transformations.

We live in very interesting times, and the generation of young people now face unique and difficult challenges in the years ahead.   It’s a bit scary, but also very exciting.

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Computer Memory

My memory of computers, that is.   This week I’ve been splitting my time between grading final papers and preparing for a web based course that begins December 28th.   Not having taught an online course before, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure the structure is clear, the infrastructure on “Blackboard” is set, and hoping things are uncomplicated and user friendly for the students.   In a couple weeks I’ll find out if I succeeded.   Meanwhile I’m grading more and more papers sent via e-mail.  Some professors go virtually paperless.  I suspect I’ll end up there too.

One good thing about being my age is that I’ve witnessed the growth of the computer from some fancy gizmo only big companies or universities had to an integral part of every aspect of our life.   It’s pretty amazing how fast things have developed.

When I was six, the same age as my eldest son now, my dad would take us to his office, a computer service company called Data, Inc.   We’d love to roam the place, looking at the punch card machines (often staffed with ‘punch card girls’ who worked even after the 9-5 shift), the big computers with huge roles of tape and lighted raised buttons.   The company did payrolls and other sorts of services since back in the sixties owning a computer was a big deal!

In my first year of college (1978) my then girlfriend was taking computer science, and I recall going to the “computer room” of Augustana College.   There were about four computers in a side room in the then Social Science building, actually a converted barracks.  They were big, old and bulky; there was no operating system and I would have to type in commands using the “basic” language.   It was time consuming, but once I spent hours programming a fake psychological test, where you answered questions and based on the answers you were given a profile.    In my sophomore year my roommate had a Tandy computer that also lacked an operating system and saved programs on cassettes (you could hook a normal cassette player to the computer).   There was a cool Star Trek game you could play.   By my senior year Augie had a real computer center in the corner of the Gilbert Science Center, with over a dozen computers, and a new bred of human: the computer nerd.    When I visited some years later, the dorm basements were all well stocked with computers.

In 1983 I took a job in Washington working for a Senator.   I started in the CMS division, which used computers to keep data bases of voters, divided by issue interest, cities, and other things.   We’d send letters to be printed, and be in charge of sending out the form letters.   If, say, a post card campaign about an issue came in, they’d go straight to us to arrange for the form letter response.   The Senator would never even know those cards came and went.   It was still big computers, a green screen, and very limited functionality.   I could use it as a word processor, but otherwise had to stay within the parameters of my job.   When I moved to assistant Press Secretary I did get to operate a cool machine that would send images of letters and newspaper articles back to South Dakota.    We called it a “telecopier;” now it gets called a fax.   It stood three feet high, and had a strange smooth paper.

While working there I also entered the world of personal computing, buying a Commodore 64.   No operating system, but you could buy software.   The software wasn’t stored on the computer (I’d load “Paperclip” word processing software every time I used it), and the printer was a daisy wheel (the best quality — better than the yucky dot matrix or the typewriter style that got stuck all the time).   Cool.  For three or four years that machine served me as I got my MA, quit the job with the Senator, and then headed off to Minnesota to work on my Ph.D.

The computer lab at Minnesota was impressive for the late eighties.   They had a laser printer, which everyone considered to be awesome.   It wasn’t until the third year that I started using it, as I realized that Wordperfect was a much better software than Paperclip.   We also could play games like Tetris and Simcity (some got addicted to the point they never finished their dissertations).    Then in 1989 I got a Mellon Grant to go to Germany.   That led to my first laptop.

It cost only $500, and was an Olivetti with two disk ports.   That was important; it had no hard drive, so if I wanted to use Wordperfect I’d have to have the Wordperfect disk in one port and the disk I’d save my files to in the other.   Its screen was not back lit, so it was hard to read (blackish on greenish).   It was also heavy.   But for the price, it couldn’t be beat.  It  was my companion in Germany in the summer of 1989.   Before leaving on that trip our computer guru told me about “bitnet,” or the ability to send instantaneous messages from one university to another.   It was, of course, e-mail — and to use it I would have to go to a university and have their computer department send it.   Too complex, I thought.

After that trip my Olivetti served me until I got my DAAD scholarship to go to Germany in the fall of ’91.  Before leaving I plopped down $1600 to buy a new Zeos laptop.  It was luxury!  A backlit screen so I could see clearly the words (no graphics, to be sure), a 286 processor, and something my Olivetti didn’t have — a hard drive.  I could keep Wordperfect on the computer, and even save files.   That machine served me in Germany, and was what I wrote my dissertation on.  After I got back from Germany I found that we had all been assigned e-mail addresses:  mine was serb@polisci.umn.edu.  From school, or from my office at St. Olaf when I taught there, I could use e-mail.   I also could go to usenet discussion groups and debate politics and science, an experience I’ll write a whole blog entry about later.   I even started to go to the world wide web, though it still was hard to navigate and lacked interesting content.

Up until this point computers were tools for what I was working on — papers, resumes, stories, dream journals, etc.  Now it was becoming a mode of communication with connections to the outside world.  The revolution was beginning!

In the Fall of 1995 I started work at UMF and finally got a real state of the art desktop computer.   A Packard Bell Legend 406C,  Pentium 75 with an 850 MG harddrive  and 8 MG RAM.   Wow!  It even had a modem, and I could call up and get on line from my apartment.  I also was able to get E-mail on a program called Eudora, which made e-mail communication easier to manage.   Usenet group debates grew as well, and the internet got interesting, with even CNN and other news organizations posting things on line.   One faculty member started his own webpage, and by 1997 when Frontpage software meant no longer having to learn html, I started mine as well.   During the Kosovo war in 1999, a war which I opposed, I started posting daily entries talking about the war.   I stopped after a few months, but I had posted my first blog — even though the term “blog” was not yet in use.

Now I have a Dell Latitude E6400 laptop, 2GB RAM, and a hard drive with 150 GB.   Yet as students text, twitter, and colleagues use blackberries and Kindles, I realize that the pace of technological advancement just keeps growing.   Back in 1995 most students still didn’t actively use e-mail; now it is a primary means of communications and students are required to have it and pay attention to it.

There is something really cool about being able to live through the growth of this technology, using it as it changes, and experiencing how it changes my life and our culture.   When I was in college I dreaded aging — not just physical discomfort, but the idea that the glorious set of future possibilities would fade.   Yet possibilities for the future still abound, the present is where one exists, and the past offers a reach set of memories that give life a sense of meaning and depth.

So from punch cards to wireless high speed home internet, what a trip this computer era has been…and still is.

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Teaching Online

Want to earn four college credits?   Take POS 266, German and Italian Politics, this winter term (three weeks from just after Christmas to mid-January).   I’m delving in the world of online teaching.  If this works, I’ll try a course on German and Italian politics (or maybe French and British politics) next summer.   I never thought I’d teach on line, but given changes taking place in higher education, it’s important to know how to do so.

Higher education, like all fields, is undergoing extreme pressures due to the financial crisis.   The University of Maine system is looking at a potential $40 million shortfall by 2012, especially as the stimulus money helping now runs out.  That leaves institutions within the system facing severe cuts and questions about how to assure long term viability.   It forces people to think about changing their way of doing things, something most people resist.

Until recently, I also was in resistance mode.  After all, Political Science is a healthy program, with courses well enrolled, and offering this year a brand new full BA in Political Science (in the past it was a concentration in an interdisciplinary major).   This bucks the trend in the system for cutting programs and faculty positions.   We also have a new Pre-Law program with funding, and are part of an International Studies major which also recently went from being an interdisciplinary concentration to a full BA.   What we’re doing is working, so why change?

Talking with colleagues, however, I realized that it would be a mistake to see only those programs facing enrollment problems or potential elimination as the ones which have to change.   The human tendency to alter path only when one faces an existential threat is one of human nature’s greatest weaknesses.    The time to change path is not when disaster is looming, but when things are going relatively well and you want to put yourself in a position to assure that despite changes in the environment, things can keep getting better.

Not having taught on line before, I’m going to try to do a university ‘faculty professional development course’ and listen to those who have taken web based courses.  My wife, a CPA who is earning her MBA on line, is a good source of information as she curses or praises the techniques and actions she sees from on line instructors.  Our Administrative Assistant is taking an on line course.

As I listen to colleagues react to the new environment, it’s clear there are a few different ways of thinking.   A few — an increasingly small few — are in denial phase.   Despite faculty cuts last year, they believe it’s more spectacle than reality, and the fear of economic crisis is being used as an excuse for the administration to follow some nefarious agenda.   There are also the ‘academic idealists,’ who really want to make all decisions based on what is pedagogically best for programs and courses.   This may include keeping smaller classes or a variety of low enrollment classes that nonetheless serve a valuable function.   The idealists are not like the deniers since they know there is a problem, they just believe that the problem should be solved by other means — such as cutting administrative positions or sometimes eliminating lower quality programs.

Then there are the competitors, people who see this as a zero-sum game and want to fight to protect their program, and lure students and majors to their courses.   There are also the pessimistic fatalists, convinced that nothing they do can stop negative tendencies in how the university operates, and the oblivious specialists, who figure that they are probably safe so they can tune out the discussions.   Academics are not used to bearing the brunt of economic hardship.   Our jobs usually are the last to go, we have strong protections and excellent severance packages.  It’s expensive to fire professors or cut academic programs.  But with state budgets squeezed and the situation likely to get worse when the stimulus money stops flowing in 2012, reality bites.

Three areas generate controversy: program change designed to entice students (the idealists see marketing as something that should not be taken into account in creating academic programs), assessment, and on line teaching.

Assessment involves analyzing whether courses and programs actually achieve their goals: are students learning?   The easiest form of assessment is through standardized tests, but that’s also the least useful in terms of figuring out how to improve programs and help students.   Traditionally assessment was resisted by faculty who thought that we’re the experts, we know that what we’re doing works.   Who are those administrators or outsiders to question our classroom expertise?   However, those outsiders control the purse strings, and those administrators have to prove to accreditors that we are a quality institution.   When you think about it, given how much the public, families and individuals pay for education, don’t we owe it to everyone to try to measure whether or not we’re achieving our goals?

So slowly, painfully, faculty embrace assessment programs.  They set goals, and start to figure out measures.  At some point, we start to recognize that gee, this does generate useful information, and if you institutionalize it, it’s not so arduous.  We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.

On line teaching is strongly resisted, especially by liberal arts colleges like mine.   Education is best with personal contact, and hands on work with students.   The internet is cold, communication impersonal, and interaction limited.  We are a public liberal arts college, however, meaning we face financial difficulties the big private schools do not.  We also benefit from our niche in economic tough times, as the lower tier privates — expensive, but without the big recognizable name — start looking like a poor value.   We’ve already been called one of the country’s top educational values by Kipplingers, after all!   Moreover, faculty members like me tend to think we don’t need to do on line courses.   Lecturing is one of my strong suits, and I enjoy class time.  Our major isn’t in trouble.

Yet, in times like this it’s important to try every option to improve, and to recognize that generating income for the university is important.  On line courses draw from outside the normal student pool, and are marketed by the system.   It’s a skill that is increasingly in demand by both students and universities.   Learning how to do it well now might come in handy, especially if the economic tumult does not go away (or if swine flu shuts down the university!)

So the changes in our culture, economy and politics hit the workplace as well.   Luckily for me it’s not that my job is in danger, but that the old ways of doing things are no longer enough.   We have to be academic pragmatists, embrace change, and try new things.   And you know, I’m starting to look forward to it!   Not as much as the May term trip to Vienna and Berlin (and no, that will not be taught on line — no virtual traveling!), but I’ll be learning something new — and the pursuit of constant life long learning is one reason I chose this profession!

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