September 4, 2011

Tolkienesque thoughts on the Internet

I have been reading a long, but quite interesting article by Jason Lanier, who has been involved for years in the development of the internet, but whom I had never heard of previously.  While being critical of the internet,  the article is not a diatribe or "rant" but rather a well-reasoned article that sees the advantages and disadvantages of global networks in general.  In his article, "Local-Global Flip", Lanier makes myriad points--peppered liberally with examples-- two of which are, I believe, critical to understand the highly networked world we have found ourselves in after one short generation, as well as provide guideposts to the evolving world of engineering education.

The first of these points is that those of us who use the internet are not consumers, rather we are the product.  This is particularly true if we take advantage of "free" software and services.  This is rather obvious; as Heinlein said so long ago (and it was old then) TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch").  It costs money, real money, to buy and maintain the servers and associated technology, and pay the smart people to develop all this cool stuff.  Google (and other internet companies) make money on this by collecting, analyzing, and selling information about you.  Since I am writing this blog on Blogspot, I too am participating in this model!

The second point Lanier makes is that there are unforeseen and unintended consequences to any technology we choose to adopt.  The term used in intelligence and policy circles for unforeseen consequences is "blowback".  The theme of unforeseen consequences has long resonated with me personally; perhaps from reading Tolkien at a young age:
"Alas for Saruman!  It was his downfall as I now perceive.  Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves."  (The Two Towers, ch. 11)
Engineers (and by association technologists) suffer from Saruman's sin of hubris.  The hubris of the "network" is that none of us fully understand it, and few even understand it in enough detail to recreate it.  And that is just the technology, the social and economic consequences are even less known or perhaps even knowable.  As an example Cindy Atman's (and colleagues') work on what engineering students learn found that knowledge of the larger context surrounding the engineering students learn is nearly absent when they graduate.

These two points are related.  The consequences of the internet and the data-enabled networks engendered by it have, in Lanier's opinion, impoverished the populations they were designed to serve.  We create knowledge and give it away for free in exchange for social recognition while those who control the network gain wealth and power.  Lanier sees this as the "local-global" flip; as networks get too global they create local conditions that undermine their own success.  Lanier points out that this flip is the likely, but not inevitable, consequence of creating large networks which simply arise from the fact that those that accumulate power have the failing of being human. 

But enough summary, I can't do this article justice in a blog post. What, you may ask, does this have to do with engineering education?  If Lanier's conclusions are right it means we need to be very careful with new conceptions of universities that focus on putting more content on-line.  By making information widely available, we eventually undermine the role of faculty since we have always been knowledge workers.  The focus on research, on knowledge creation, does help define a valuable role for faculty, but does not address education.  It is too bad Lanier's article doesn't focus on his third way, the "middle path" between the extremes he defines of Marxism and "The Matrix" for we surely need to find better way forward.

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