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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Paradigm Shiftwork

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.

Featured Speakers

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.

My view of my WordPerfect documents is now from the other side of a paradigm shift. WordPerfect was created to produce paper documents more efficiently. It is now much more efficient to store and manipulate online information, since much of our interaction with our peers or the entire world is now via an online world. Cerf's suggestion was that older versions of applications should enter into a software escrow and be available for later translation of data back into information. Of course, many software versions are dependent upon specific a OS version,
and those OS versions are dependent upon specific hardware, so this is not as simple in practice as it might be in theory. A possibly more practical solution would be an escrow of data definitions
which might make possible the translation of obsolete data back into information, however, implementation of such a translation may require a degree of programming skill that is beyond most online denizens (not to mention the intellectual property issues which surround any of these possible solutions). However, the paradigm shift from electronic version as intermediary to electronic version as primary makes this ongoing access such an important issue.

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 books, 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.

You can observe this phenomenon in how humans store information. Before the era of the printing press, much information was transmitted in spoken (or sung) form and stored in human memory. Printing separated the information from the source, allowed efficient transmission via physical media, allowed for wider distribution, and offloaded the storage from human memory. Online information provides independence from the physical media and allows universal transmission within a virtual world. Unless you print it out, this column you are reading has no physical manifestation beyond the temporary display of it on your computer screen. Yet, you can access this column at any time and from any place. Each of these information storage and transmission paradigms have influenced human behavior and perhaps even human thought.

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' Darius 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.

This last concept generated a scene in my mind that might have been played out in ancient days. On one side is a scholar and on the other a technologist holding pen and parchment with the scholar saying, "I'm too busy THINKING to learn how to read and write." This is analogous to today's scholars who state, "I'm too busy with my research and teaching to learn a new technology." This may be very true, yet, their children or grandchildren will soon be saying, "why do I have to learn to read and write when I have all this technology?" If you don't believe that, you should know that in many public schools handwriting is not taught after third grade because it is irrelevant. When my generation was in school, mastery of cursive was a requirement and taught as late as fifth grade. These days, cursive is no longer a requirement in public schools (or in most life situations), and if computers can do the reading for you, why do you need to learn that too?

What's next?

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 purchase 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?

My career in computing support has consisted of a continual process of moving academics from older to newer paradigms of information technology. From paper to computer, from mainframe to PC, from multi-user to network user -- it's been a continuous stream of ferry boat trips on a technology river (some faculty might claim it to be the Styx). I've learned that the river keeps flowing regardless of how hard you try to hold it back. It's best to try to keep up with the flow. And like Orpheus, sometimes it's best not to look back. 


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