This blog is an extension of my participation in the New Media Faculty Seminar (NMFS henceforth) at Virginia Tech where we’ll spend the semester thinking about and discussing, broadly, “Awakening the Digital Imagination”. This seminar presents a fascinating opportunity to not only ask ourselves to think complicated and large thoughts, but also to digest and be influenced by the complicated and large thoughts of a diverse array of VT personnel who have completely different perspectives and experiences.
So, where am I starting? What is my habitus? In reflecting on class last week, and before diving into the reading this week, I found myself circling back to a refrain that arose out of my doctoral research. My study, though not directly centered on New Media, looked at intra- and inter-institutional collaboration on information technology. And, as part of the interviews in this case study, several CIO’s independently said to me that they feel we are in a time of incredible technological expansion, the impact of which will be greater than anything humanity has experienced since the invention of the printing press.
That the printing press example came up more than once, to me, is telling. When we look in our back pockets for a go-to example of a technology that revolutionized humanity the printing press is always there waiting for us. I don’t need to enumerate why in great detail, but briefly I’d say it could fairly be described as the technological big bang of humanity. Knowledge and thought and expression could no longer be tightly controlled and expanded out in a rapid and indescribably impactful fashion. Give people an opening to communicate, philosophize, and develop shared knowledge and watch society and our day to day lives evolve. Perhaps no other technology has ever had as great of an impact.
So it’s a bold claim to say that we’re in a time period akin to the era that launched our modern society. But.
I agree. We have access to an exponentially increasing array of technologies and not only are they indeed revolutionizing the way we define our existence as humans but they are, to a certain extent, casting us adrift into a galaxy of opportunity and choice that is overwhelming in possibility and limited only by our ability to imagine the next step. The difference, perhaps, is that it is no longer one single medium or technology that makes this era analogous to the past, it’s everything, taken together.
“How fitting”, I then found myself thinking when we visited Vannevar Bush this week in his 1945 essay As We May Think. I know Bush from graduate school, though I had not read this particular essay. And Bush, in 1945, was awed by the sheer amount of information and scientific advancement being produced. He asserted, and has been resoundingly proven correct, that it was vitally important we find better ways to synthesize, share, and process all of this information. He saw that we were on the cusp of being able to do so in ways that were vastly easier and more useful than was the case in 1945. Bush also noted that the pace of technological invention was picking up at such a rate that these concerns were really just a matter of time and creativity–that resolution was inevitable and would be revolutionary.
This is true. And yet, we have essentially advanced to the point where we have circled back. As I previewed above, the sheer volume of information, technological choice, and pace of invention is becoming difficult, if not impossible, to handle. Things change so quickly that it is easy to feel defeated by them – why should I learn this, adapt to this, consider this, if it’s going to be irrelevant in a year? But our society has and is changing as a result of these new media and technologies. One has only to read one of the spate of articles lambasting, lamenting, praising, questioning, or otherwise examining the rise and impact of social media to grasp that we, as a species, know that things are changing in the way we interact with one another and exist together but aren’t entirely sure what we want to do about it.
Social media may be a superficial example (and one with a definite developed country bias), but my point is that we’re in a time period of such rapid change and development that, as hard as it is to try to grasp the big picture and imagine where the future is going, we really need to. Finding meaningful and productive ways to use new media is important because–if those of us who see similarities to the printing press are on to anything at all–society and our lives are going to change. Humanity should aspire for it to be a meaningful and productive evolution that leads us to greater things, but for this to happen it has to be actively engaged. Our increasing symbiosis with technology has the potential for both great good and profound (if often banal or inadvertent) evil. Those of us working in the education sector have a particular responsibility here since we in many ways sculpt, produce, and document the span of human existence from the distant past to the murky future. And, our work travels and evolves over time…not only as we advance knowledge together, but as we produce graduates who shape the future through their own lives. Let’s awaken our digital imaginations and get to work. There’s so very much to be done.