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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
My last week was mostly occupied by immersion in the 2006 EDUCAUSE conference, conveniently held (for me) this year in Dallas, Texas. This event is an annual gathering of about 7,000 people either working with, supporting, or selling various information technologies used in institutions of higher education in the U.S. and elsewhere. As is the case with most of these types of events, there were numerous presentations around a variety of topics, a large vendor display area, and some prominent speakers to provide a high-level commentary to accompany the themes of the conference.
This year's featured speakers included Vinton Cerf, one of the "founding fathers" of the Internet (or "some guy from Google" as I heard one attendee describe him), Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist author, and Georgia Nugent, classics scholar and current president of Kenyon College. As you would expect, these three different speakers provided diverse presentations which approached the idea of information technology from different viewpoints. I came away from the conference, however, with a sense that they were all talking about the same concept: we can't escape the paradigm shifts which are occurring in this "Internet age."
Challenges for the 21st Century
One of the points that Vinton Cerf made was that our ability to create
new hardware is outpacing our ability to produce equivalent software
(a very general summation on my part). He also pointed out that while
we can preserve more and more data, that data loses its meaning unless
we have the software to translate the bits back to information. This
is particularly salient in my experience with
WordPerfect on my Macintosh.
The MacBook Pro on which I write this is two software generations away
from the last version of WordPerfect for Macintosh. The Intel-based
Macintoshes, although still running OS X, cannot run the "Classic" Mac
OS environment that predated OS X and which last supported a Macintosh
version of WordPerfect. This renders all my important WordPerfect
files (including my dissertation text) into mostly useless collections
of bits (in the computing sense of the word). Even if there were a
current version of WordPerfect for Mac OS, it's doubtful it would
still be able to open and manipulate 15 year-old documents.
The Acceleration of Technology in the 21st Century
At EDUCAUSE, Ray Kurzweil spoke of a different kind of paradigm shift.
Kurzweil discussed the accelerating pace of technological progress and
related that to human evolution. He presented a
graph which illustrated that the evolution of life, the human
species, and human technology have progressed at a regular rate of
acceleration on a logarithmic scale. This means that the next paradigm
shift happens in one tenth of the time that the last one took. In his
The Age of Spiritual Machines: When
Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans
Transcend Biology, Kurzweil argues that technological
change and human development will merge some time in this century
fundamentally changing the nature of the human species.
The Tower of Google
Georgia Nugent, in her 2006 EDUCAUSE conference speech, compared
Google's aim of digitizing libraries of books to the attempts of
Alexander the Great and other powerful figures through the ages to
compile collections of knowledge as symbols of power. She emphasized
that the Google project represented the first time that this kind of
collection would be held in private rather than public hands. However,
I see the Google boy billionaires as twin Alexanders to Bill Gates'
and think it's just a matter of time before that private wealth of
knowledge migrates into the public arena ( as many art collections and
libraries have done in the past). She mentioned in passing the idea of
a paradigm shift from scholarship as spoken to written word, which
predates the shift to print technology discussed above.
Kurzweil sees a singularity approaching when humans transcend the
biological paradigm, but the truth is that not all humans live within
the same paradigm. An example can be found in how we purchase goods
and services. In 1966, you physically went to a store to
items. By 1986, you could order from a catalog and do your transaction
via postal mail. In 2006, transactions can now be done entirely online
with automated delivery via a number of package carriers. We all know
people who are "stuck" in a previous paradigm, or at least are most
comfortable in one of the earlier paradigms. In this example, the
timeframe is that of a generation. We are soon approaching a situation
in information technology and electronics where the paradigm will
change every two years and soon after that, every two months. (How
obsolete is your 6-month old cell phone?) Are we humans adaptable
enough to keep up with the paradigm shifts?