Technology’s takeover

The advances that have been seen in technology since our childhood are unprecedented, and they have dramatically affected our lives as students at Williams College. Our documents and writing are transmitted across campus in seconds via wireless networks that allow people like me to print to Jesup from my room in Mark Hopkins. I can circulate a paper for comments and critique and get it back in 15 minutes. The red pen is being replaced by Microsoft Word’s “comment” feature.

We juniors and seniors were born before the modern Web page, and all of us were born before texting, and for that matter, the common cell phone. I’d say that one day, we’re going to seem ancient, but when I think about the above facts myself, I feel ancient already. When you tell your grandkids that you remember the first iPod, they’ll gasp.

Technology is changing at an incredible pace – Facebook is so new that no one is yet sure what the proper etiquette is – what is a “friend?” What does a poke mean? When you click “attending” on an event invite, why does it actually mean, “I might or might not be attending, but I want to be supportive”? Why do we put hundreds of pictures up for the public, but call it “stalking” when anyone looks at them? As Facebook continually pushes our data into the public sphere (check your privacy options, people), will we eventually need a more private alternative?

When you get a text, are you obligated to respond immediately? How long is too long?  How short is too short? What about e-mail? Now that our phones all have caller ID, what does it mean when picking up the phone is no longer any surprise? With so many BlackBerries, will instant replies to e-mail become the norm or expectation? In today’s era of instant communication, how many of us will send e-mails and texts that we will regret five seconds later, but are unable to take back? Which media demand correct grammar and which don’t? No one has easy answers to these questions. We just need to wait for some sort of culture to fully develop around our new media of communication. For myself, I hope never to own a BlackBerry.

We are used to getting any sort of music, television or cinematic programming for free, via sites like Grooveshark and Hulu. Anyone can publish content for the world to see; over 180,000 blogs are created each day, roughly equivalent to each Williams student starting six blogs each waking hour. Anyone can record a concert or program and immediately upload it to Youtube.

Our safety has been tangibly improved: We can call for emergency help from just about anywhere, and cell towers can triangulate our position for rescue teams. We can send images of ourselves to every country via Chatroulette and see exhibitionists of every nationality in return. (All right, that might not be a good thing.) Information is cheap and easily transmitted: If I forget my book for class, I can look it up on Google Books and read most of it (or the whole thing, if in public domain). Increasingly, we’ll be able to look up any direction or instruction with a phone. Last week, when I gave two trainings on how to use equipment in Goodrich, people took notes on their iPhones, something I bet I will see much more in the future.

All of these developments can make one wonder, what will happen if calamity strikes? If the Internet is disrupted, as could have easily happened two years ago (see “Dan Kaminsky” on Wikipedia), how will we respond? If all of our maps are online, will everyone be lost without a signal? Will the world’s businesses be able to coordinate their operations? Closer to home, if all of our time as scholars at Williams is spent manipulating a computer, does that mean that all of our developed skills will be computer dependant? Is the PC a safe basket in which to place our educational eggs? Is this even worth thinking about?

After all, change in this area is about as capitalistic as it comes – prices are dropping, capabilities are rising and, until a disruptive event intervenes, the flow will progress. I don’t have answers to these questions, but while we consider the underlying effects of various sociological, biological and linguistic phenomena, some critical thought on our media for modern education might be worthwhile. I don’t know what will be coming in the future, but if the past is any indication, it will be even more radical and transformative.

My only certainty: We must avoid reliance on information stored somewhere else, keeping what we need on paper or in our own heads. No matter how much technology changes, nothing will replace the data recovery speeds and reliability of a practiced personal recollection.