SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet – Published This Week

I am honored to have had the opportunity to publish two entries in the recently published SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet.  The work is a comprehensive survey of many different internet-related topics, from the highly technical, to the theoretical and social.  Editor Barney Warf has done a wonderful job soliciting entries from experts around the world.

The Encyclopedia is available in hard copy format from SAGE, and is also available online through SAGE Knowledge.

The abstracts and links for my two entries are as follows:

Internet Slang: Internet slang, like its counterparts in the spoken and written forms, is a mode of communication that typically consists of shortened words or phrases, neologisms (new words), abbreviations or initialisms, and paralinguistic or paraverbal markers. In the online space, netspeak (as Internet slang is sometimes called) allows the user to take shortcuts, save time, and communicate more efficiently. This efficiency is important for online media in which space is limited or input devices, such as mobile phones, prohibit the typing of lengthy messages. The use of Internet slang can also be considered a form of codeswitching, a sociolinguistic practice that helps users establish social groups in both inclusive and exclusive ways. This entry discusses the role that Internet slang plays in social communication.  Read more…

Net Neutrality: Net neutrality is a movement within the technology community that seeks to establish and preserve fair and open network accessibility for all end users, content providers, and technology protocols. It is the idea that the Internet—comprising many protocols such as hypertext transfer protocol, File Transfer Protocol, email (Internet Message Access Protocol, Post Office Protocol, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), and many others—should be equally accessible for all users. Furthermore, it is the idea that all publishers (e.g., websites, bloggers, social media sites) and networked services (e.g., Netflix, Spotify, Hulu) should be equally available to all paying customers. More basically, perhaps, many see net neutrality as the fundamental principle of a networked society. It is the ability for everyone to communicate freely online with whomever, through whichever … Read more…

The Task of the New Leader

I will admit that I have been burned out on technology recently, having come through some rough tech experiences over the past year in my business.  I have been frustrated by things like server outages, software compatibility, hardware failures, and even business associates with terrible email and social media etiquette!  At the same time, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and humanity, and this course (ILD 831: Technology and Leadership) offered a way to get out from under some of the practical stresses and look at tech in a broader way.  A recurring theme for me throughout this course has been the question of how technology has shaped (and is shaped by) humanity over the last 500 years, and of course, more recently, how the digital and network revolutions have exponentially accelerated many of these changes.

Early in the semester, we tackled the idea that network technology has “flattened” the world.  Friedman (2007) and Florida (2005) attacked the problem along the general battle lines of technodeterminism and social constructivism.  Friedman suggested that technology eliminates knowledge/social gaps while Florida asserted that it actually increases those gaps because of the contextual structures in which the technology is or is not being used (spikes of activity).  I believe that both approaches have merit and that the interplay between them is where the task of leadership is most daunting.  That is, leaders in the 21st century must be able to understand how technology shapes language, epistemology, cognition, and social relationships, while at the same time, building social/organizational systems in which technology’s positive impact will be maximized.

Tools of the Trade

Looking at individual pieces of technology, our class delved into discussions of how digital tech works, how it is applicable in today’s organizations, and what future innovations may look like.  My classmates and I reviewed the features and functions of many digital tools to unearth what works, what doesn’t, and in what context.  This exercise demonstrated that not all apps are created equal.  Not all social media outlets have Facebook’s sticking power, and many utilities aren’t worth the MBs they take up on your drive.  Leaders may find themselves causing more harm than good if they are simply trying to keep up with technology adoption.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced a poorly planned technology rollout and grimaced as we watched frustrated users rebel against the new time tracking or project management system that middle management put in place.  For me, this underscored the point that not all tech is good tech, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should (…force technology on our schools or organizations).  What we should be doing, though, is moving toward an implementation of technology that enables “us” to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and move forward under the power of the collective intelligence.

Knowing and Learning

Weinberger (2011) and Shirky (2008) both emphasize that technology has indeed reshaped human epistemology.  Aside from the technical functioning of the “net,” these authors carefully demonstrate the new shape of knowledge, the new heuristics we’re developing to “filter forward” and “find stopping points.”  Weinberger (2011), in particular, carefully outlines how the net is limitless, lumpy, sticky, and democratic.  In true media ecology tradition, Weinberger outlines all of the ways that networked knowledge and “social epistemology” (Turner, 2012) change because of the technological framework that is now common to so many…in developed countries, at least.  Husband’s (n.d.) concept of Wirearchy furthers our understanding of networked knowledge, specifically the ways in which social norms are transmitted.  This is of particular importance for leaders and organizational members, since our concepts of power, deference, and authority are inextricably bound up with our social norms.  Thus, we find that within networked societies, the very notion of power and authority has changed, along with the ways in which we value the knowledge of the so-called “experts.”  We are now collectively more expert than any one expert, no matter how credentialed.  The ramifications for understanding power dynamics in a digital-technology-based world are long-reaching and provide fertile ground for future scholarship.

The Haves (internet) and Haves Not

While “the net” is generally thought to be completely ubiquitous, estimates suggest that less than half of the world’s population has access to the internet (Internet Live Stats, 2016).  The split between access and non-access is much like Ong’s (1982) distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  Though, because of the nature of technology, specifically connected, mobile technology, many of Ong’s (oral v. literate) psychodynamic characteristics collapse and new iterations emerge (Jarc, 2014).  Within these discussions, I proposed that “internet users” at a fundamental cognitive level are more similar than different.  Within the 40% of people on the planet that have access to the internet, however, there are immense gaps in usage habits, connection speeds, preferred devices, and content consumed; these differences could potentially lead to huge gaps in collective intelligence, and must be considered in the move to artificial intelligence, collaborative working, and disruptive business models.

Because of the uncertainty in the future of digital technology, there are many ethical considerations to consider.  To my point above, access to technology, and the rights that users have regarding connectivity are critical.  Reviewing the ethical considerations of technology allowed me to think about thinking about the morals of technology.  That is, as new questions and problems arise, so to must new ways of thinking about what’s “right.”  I dove into the world of net-neutrality and encountered compelling arguments on both sides of the discussion.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the challenge of developing critical meta-level analysis of the tools, the users, and the content found in the connected world.

Looking Ahead

Finally, we must reflect on (and implement) technology and leadership in aggregate.  Leaders need to develop technical skills and digital literacy in order to lead by example.  We need to keep a finger on the pulse of digital innovation while filtering forward (Weinberger, 2011) useful innovations and passing on problematic ones.  All this needs careful situational/contextual analysis, and as such, I believe that leaders must continue to develop emotional and social intelligence.  A leader’s EQ will be on display as they teach the machines how to learn and work alongside human teams.  Leaders can no longer rely on title and hierarchy for power; authority must come from the ability to coordinate nodes within the networked workforce.  No one is quite certain where technology will take us in 10, 20, or 30 years, but good, thoughtful leadership will help make sure that society grows more prosperous as a result.  There have been/will be challenges and pitfalls, and it’s up to us digital natives to help future generations learn from our missteps.

This is the task of the new leader.

References:

Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

Internet Live Stats (2016). Internet users [webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Husband, J. (n.d.) What is wierarchy? Wirearchy [website]. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Jarc, J. (2014) Mobiliteracy: Applying Ong’s psychodynamic characteristics to users of mobile communication technology. Communication Research Trends, 33 (1), p. 21-26.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shirky, C. (2008).  Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.  New York: Penguin Press

Turner, S. (2012). Double heuristics and collective knowledge: the case of expertise. Studies in Emergent Order, 5, 64-85

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Ethical Questions in Net Neutrality

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Generally considered the “inventor” of the World Wide Web.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was hard at work crafting a series of tools that would help revolutionize modern communication.  While working at CERN in Switzerland, Berners-Lee developed HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) and HTML (hypertext markup language) that enabled him to publish a set of basic “web pages” to the public from a server in his office.

These two protocols became the backbone of today’s World Wide Web, and are the foundation for many network-based tools such as Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, and Google.  Development like these, according to supporters of net neutrality, were possible because of the open, democratic, and decentralized sources of power in the emerging internet.  In a blog post directed to the members of the European Parliament in 2015, TimBL (as he’s often called) wrote, “The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception” (Berners-Lee, 2015).

Opponents of net neutrality would argue that in fact, more innovation, more new technology, and stronger infrastructure investment would occur if only the pesky government would leave major telecom corporations alone and let the power of the “free market” rule the direction of the net.  Proponents and detractors both offer compelling arguments for a democratic, fair, and open internet, but ethical issues begin to emerge when the conversation shifts to policy design and implementation.

What Exactly is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that “the internet” – comprising many protocols such as http, FTP, email (IMAP/POP/SMTP) – should be equally accessible for all users. Further, all publishers or networked services should be equally available to all customers.  The neutrality of the network has been put to the test recently as major telecom providers and ISPs (internet service providers) have begun to develop plans to “throttle” network bandwidth (at its own whim), or provide preferred access to pay-to-play sites and services.  When these large conglomerates provide preferential treatment to certain sites, others struggle.  When bandwidth is throttled by the ISPs, not all customers experience the same internet.  In this arrangement, it won’t be long until we’re careening down the slippery slope of open market greed and corruption.

Feds to the Rescue.

In 2015, facing huge public outcry, the Obama administration’s FCC (Federal Communication Commission) set up a series of regulations designed to preserve network neutrality and prevent large corporations from exercising profit-driven decisions about network performance and content.  CNN Money poetically reported that “The FCC just granted itself the power to defeat a raging, fire-breathing monster: the monopolistic network owners who can kill Internet freedom by blocking websites — or by creating an Internet fast lane for the privileged, few, rich tech companies that can pay for it” (Pagilery, 2015).

Feds on the Attack.

As the current administration settles into Pennsylvania Avenue, net neutrality protections may suffer a quick and painful death at the hands of new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai.  Pai, according to tech website Cnet, is the “man who will dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’” (Reardon, 2017).  Chairman Pai has been a long opponent of government oversight of the internet, suggesting that any such oversight would unnecessarily choke corporate operations, limit infrastructure investments (e.g., fiber & broadband), and ultimately harm consumers by way of higher prices and limited choice.  Of course, defenders of net neutrality (the current author included) recognize that these telecom behemoths already have the monopolistic clout to out-invest any competitor and very quickly seize self-interested control of the delicate ecosystem of an open network.  When a handful of companies controls the distribution channels AND the content, we all lose.

The Moral Authority?

According to scholar Norbert Wiener, we can begin assessing the ethics of technology by identifying and clarifying how the technology (or related actions) affect society (Bynum, 2001).  In the net neutrality discussion, this can be difficult because there are few (if any) demonstrable correlations on either side of the argument.  That is, we can’t necessarily prove that a truly open network has more or less ethical utility than one with tiers, ISP gatekeepers, or “zero-rated” services.  We also cannot demonstrate that all corporations that may exert control in a non-regulated network are inherently evil and looking to destroy civilization in search of profits.  However, examples already exist that telecoms are policing traffic, discriminating against certain protocols, and favoring preferential content providers.

Once we’ve clarified the underlying issue (here, I believe: who’s in control, the government or the telecoms? or, is government intervention ethical?) Wiener’s model suggests that we attempt to apply existing ethical frameworks to the problem.  A teleological framework seems appropriate, as both sides are ultimately promoting an open network for the benefit of innovation, user experience, and healthy economy. More specifically, a utilitarian approach that suggests the greatest good for the greatest number would demand a network in which no site/service, user, or packet of data is favored over another; this type of network, I believe, requires some intervention and cannot be left to trickle-down technology (Balkan, 2013).

The open and global nature of the internet means that every node in the network operates at a unique level of utility.  A casual Facebook user might certainly appreciate faster connectivity (via ISP sanctioned “fast lanes”), but the small business owner who can’t afford to buy in to the ISPs “specialized services” might lose valuable customers that experience slow load times on his website.  Thus, we begin a discussion of relative utility and the value that each user adds to or receives from equal participation in the net.  This is murky ethical territory. Within the context of the social contract framework, the casual (utilitarian) Facebook user might be willing give up a few megabytes per second of connectivity (individual liberty) for the sake of a network regulation that ensures equal opportunity for everyone on the network.

The nature of the open, borderless, limitless network (Weinberger, 2011) also means that ethical decision-making must adopt a global, if not universalist approach (Bynam 2001).  In contrast to the consequentialist approach mentioned above, perhaps the nature of the net calls for a deontological framework that does not attempt to account for the many possible outcomes, but rather, judges the morality of the action on our duty to preserve equality and fairness on the internet.  A majority of engaged internet citizens seem to believe that equal access is “right.”  Only 1% of more than 800,000 comments made to the FCC online were found to be “clearly against” Net Neutrality.

Judgement?

The net neutrality discussion presents a wide range of ethical concerns.  Judging the decision on potential outcomes is philosophically impossible (and irresponsible).  Applying moral relativism to decisions of network regulation is difficult because of the global nature of the network itself.  In my opinion, I believe that a deontological framework is most helpful for tackling this discussion.  I believe that equal access (not just access) to all of the internet is a right, and that defending that right is morally right.  Corporations and ISPs have rights too, of course, but when they are given free reign to control, filter, and eliminate data from the network, they begin to infringe upon perhaps the more basic right of equal internet access.  In this case, I think the access right is more fundamental than the profit right. In that way, minimal government regulation provides a great good for a huge number of internet users.

 —

References

Balkan, A. (2013). Trickle down technology and why it doesn’t work [web log]. Retrieved from: https://ar.al/notes/trickle-down-technology/

Berners-Lee, T. (2015). Net neutrality in Europe: A statement from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. World Wide Web Foundation [website]. Retrieved from http://webfoundation.org/2015/10/net-neutrality-in-europe-a-statement-from-sir-tim-berners-lee/

Bynam, T. (2001). Computer and information ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Pagliery, J. (2015, February 26). FCC adopts historic Internet rules.  CNN Tech. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/26/technology/fcc-rules-net-neutrality/

Reardon, M. (2017, February 14). Meet the man who’ll dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’. CNet. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/fcc-chairman-ajit-pai-dismantle-net-neutrality-with-a-smile/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Technology is Leveling the Organizational Playing Field (but not always).

The age of the networked economy is upon us, and with it, comes a slew of issues for leaders to address in their organizations. Digital, network-enabled technology has been sufficiently positioned in the center of many human interactions, from personal relationships to complex economic structures. This near ubiquity (at least in the modernized countries of the world) has led to new ways of interacting with co-workers, sharing information, and understanding power.

A fundamental advantage of a connected workforce is productivity and collaboration. Weinberger (2011), among scores of others, asserts that networks can generate larger quantities of quality innovation than any single (so called) expert. Information can be brought to bear from all corners of humanity and analyzed by individuals with limitless perspectives and life experiences. In my opinion, however, this broad assertion fails to account for the a broad socioeconomic heterogeneity of internet users.

Growth of global internet users since 1993: http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Internet Live Stats (2016) estimates that only 40% of the world’s population has access to the internet, up from less than 1% in 1995. The same site shows that in contrast, nearly 89% of those living in the US has access to the internet (in some form). My point here is that there is still a significant part of the globe that is not yet connected (or as connected) as we might believe. And those of us that are connected – despite contentious Facebook arguments in the last 6 months – are living lives that are more similar to one another than different. I think this is important in the discussion of globalization and the connected global workforce. Like all forms of communication, digital communication is subject to all sorts of cultural norms, biases, and media literacy. I think it’s important to understand just how different our experience of connectivity are from a majority of the rest of the world’s.

That said, it is very evident that even within the more “mature” user base of, say, the United States, there are still huge gaps in levels of experience, proficiency, and digital fluency. In a multi-generational digital workforce, it may be critical for leaders (titular or otherwise) to assist team members with limited technology experience or lower levels of proficiency. In this way, I think the leader continues to shoulder the burdens of facilitating learning beyond the content of the work. Teaching/implementing technology, I think, presents an important opportunity for developing organizational culture. That is, how are employees taught to use technology in their roles, how are norms and expectations communicated, and how do co-workers deal with each other in light of digital acculturation (Jarc, 2015).

From http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/11/19/searching-for-work-in-the-digital-era/

In this same sense, digital workers may use the same tools very differently. The information presented by Smith (2015) illustrates a few of the ways in which different users manipulate their digital experiences. For example, Smith outlines the differences between smartphone users who execute job applications on their devices and those who are using smartphones for “analog” tasks like calling (I mean really, who even does that anymore?!). Importantly, users across the spectrum expect different things from themselves and their technology. This can cause problems in networked teams, when individuals want or need to communicate in dramatically different ways. So, even if we are connected, we are connected in different ways.

Finally, I think the broadening of the networked workforce raises interesting questions about the nature of power and how individual nodes within the network make sense of relationships with others. Husband’s (n.d.) definition of wirearchy addresses part of this question. For Husband, power in the network is “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology” (para. 8). I think that this is a fine definition of a self-governing structure, but I wonder if this definition can play all the way through the end of the human transaction. As a colleague points out in her blog this week, sometimes teams need someone who can overtly assert power, make a decision, and drive teams out of counterproductive ruts. In terms of the networked workforce, with its heavy reliance on tech, does the best, most proficient tech user assume this role? If I can, say, type faster, or produce reports more quickly or research more efficiently, will others begin to look to me as the leader of the networked team? For me, this discussion of perceived power is an incredibly important one, and one that I will certainly continue thinking about!

 

References:

Husband, J. (n.d.) What is wierarchy? Wirearchy [website]. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Internet Live Stats (2016). Internet users [webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Jarc, J. (2015). Parlance, perception and power: An inquiry into non-standard language use in digital media (master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1684659688

Smith, A. (2015, November 19). Searching for work in the digital era. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/11/19/searching-for-work-in-the-digital-era/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Knowledge Management and Collective Learning in the Age of Google

This week’s readings were fascinating to me.  I’m hoping this area will potentially be a part of my dissertation research.  I’ve been curious about communicating leadership via technology, as well as facilitating (teaching) creativity through technology.  In my role as an educator in several creative disciplines, I’ve wrestled with how leaders can foster communities of practice and open up dialogues in on-the-ground classrooms and online courses.  Specific to the knowledge management discussion, I think there needs to be a balance between archived, best practice, explicit knowledge (Dixon, 2009) and postmodern, socially generated heuristics developed in the cloud (Weinberger, 2011).  I would tend to agree with Jarche’s (2016) recent assertion that, “While people learn from formal instruction, they also learn in the workflow and outside work” (para. 8).

In my classrooms and online classes, I believe it’s still important to “deposit” – as Freire (1968) might describe it-  explicit knowledge into the minds of the learners.  In graphic design, there is a specific tool to use when attempting to accomplish a specific task.  In web development, HTML syntax is extremely important… a missing semicolon can ruin an entire web page, not to mention frustrate students and instructors alike!  In this way, I think that knowledge management serves an important function.  Organizing and disseminating (Dixon, 2009) the proper tools and processes is a requirement that must be satisfied before we can even begin to think about creativity or adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009).  Once a student or employee has access to a baseline amount of information, then the leader can begin to shape and use sociotechnical systems (Burke, 2014) to optimize social learning (Jarche, 2010).

In terms of confronting those adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009), I do believe that collective experiential knowledge (Dixon, 2009b) is powerful (and necessary).  In my web development level III course, for example, we work a lot on troubleshooting obscure problems that don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer.  There’s no way I can teach the solution to every potential technical problem.  In this case, I need to manage the process of identifying aspects of the challenge, thinking critically about paths to resolution, and, most important to the new KM discussion, how to seek out and apply the expertise of the multitudes.

Just yesterday, I got an error on a client’s website: “php.mailer.Mzh.517.UNOFFICIAL FOUND.” The first place we go is online to the “expert exchanges.” Sure enough we landed among the discussion forums and GitHub pages posted by experts, and wove our way through different resources to find the right places to look to fix the error.  Through this network of professionals, and my own decade of experience with the system we were using, we were able to locate the right file, and fix the problem.  This is an example of socially generated knowledge that is then archived in the online format.  I’m curious to think about how this changes as storage and access methods evolve.

To Davenport’s (2015) point, I would imagine that few companies in the digital media space would ever attempt to deploy a traditional KM system in light of the available social knowledge already available online.  I know some organizations do maintain code repositories and other such silos of information that can be readily accessed.  I think a major difference in the new knowledge management world is context.  Most of Davenport’s critiques seem to boil down to a forced flow or a context-agnostic adoption of a system for the sake of having a system.  I appreciate Jarche’s (2010) comment that “Stock [archived information] on the internet is everywhere, and the challenge is to make sense of it through flows and conversation [context]” (para. 23).  Thus, I think the role of the leader is to help maintain a basic level of explicit knowledge through systems and institutional memory, as well as allowing for the creation of knowledge networks and organizational learning.  Not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but doable with the right tools and human resources!

References:
Burke, W. W. (2014). Organization change: Theory and practice (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davenport, T.H. (2015). Whatever happened to knowledge management? The Wall Street Journal: CIO Report.
Dixon, N. (2009a, May 2).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part one. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/05/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-one.html
Dixon, N. (2009b, July 30).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part three. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/07/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-three.html
Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed.  Continuum Publishing Company: New York, NY.
Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., Linsky, M., (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Jarche, H. (2010). Closing the learning-knowledge loop. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from http://jarche.com/2016/12/closing-the-learning-knowledge-loop/
Jarche, H. (2016). A framework for social learning in the enterprise. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from http://jarche.com/2010/02/a-framework-for-social-learning-in-the-enterprise/
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Week 1 – Technology and Leadership

This is my first blog post for a course at Creighton University entitled “Technology and Leadership.”  The course is a part of the Interdisciplinary Doctor of Education program, in which I am a student (clearly).  Throughout the semester, I will be posting more thoughts and reflections from the course… to my classmates who are reading along this semester, I look forward to sharing these ideas with you and learning from you as always.


Is the world “flat” or “spiky”?  And what happens when machines become smarter than we are?

In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Friedman (2007) suggests that the earth (in the social, economic, technological sense) is “flattening” because of improvements to communication and travel technology.  The assertion is that technological advances since 1989 (para 10) have allowed individuals and businesses to dramatically increase productivity, expand markets, and enhance innovation through broader talent networks.  In many ways, Friedman is correct.  Technology has decreased the time it takes to do complicated tasks and increased our abilities to connect with one another.  The internet’s beginnings as a government/university research and collaboration network speaks to the genetics of how we use the network technology.

Taken from the technological determinist perspective (e.g., McLuhan, 1964), Friedman might have us believe that the seemingly ubiquitous nature of technology and the internet is responsible for major shifts in both human consciousness and subsequent economic shifts – on par with the effects written language had on society (e.g., Ong, 1982, Shlain, 1998).  That it pervades our lives in such a way as to change the way we think, what we perceive as real, how we do business, and even how we conceive of human relationships.  If that were truly the case – or when it inevitably becomes the case – I would agree that networked technology will indeed fundamentally alter human communication and consciousness.  We have already seen its effects in countries with advanced communication infrastructures like the US.  In other countries, however, where even literacy hasn’t yet completely transformed society, technology will not thrive in the same ways it has elsewhere.  (I’d be interested to explore the notion of skipping literacy in the shift to technology further…

What Friedman may miss, and what Florida (2005) asserts, is that the technology (no matter how good) is not sufficient for the complete “flattening” of the world. The social construction of technology approach (e.g., Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987) would suggest that the technology is only as influential as its host environment allows it to be.  That is, technologies (in all forms) emerge and thrive because of economics, culture, and people’s readiness to adopt the innovation.  The printing press, for example, became a pivotal technological innovation in human history because of the climate of late medieval Europe at the time of its invention.  Scientific work was blooming, and intellectual curiosity was creating a demand for information.  Economics and trade were calling for standards of language and measure and was pushing innovation from the financial side.  Exploration and travel meant that more people across Europe, Asia, and Africa were being exposed to written language in the form of mass replications of text via the printing press.  I believe that literacy has indeed fundamentally changed many societies, yet may still be a novelty in some others.  If we plotted it, I think we’d see a trend of technological hotspots across medieval Europe similar to those presented in Florida’s (2005) article.

Does super intelligence eliminate the social constructivist narrative entirely?  In some senses, I think that if the human condition is eliminated from the equation, and AI is given reign over further development and adoption of “technologies” we may see a very different topology.  As Bostrom (2015) discussed in his talk, when machines begin to learn and adapt, the potential exists for them to move beyond even the limitations of the physical (or sociocultural) environments in which they operate.  If self preservation becomes a value of learning machines, it could follow that they would devise ways of guaranteeing technological adoption and subsequent control of societies through a kind of determinism.  If, as Shlain (1998) argues, the invention of writing systems led to the rise of hegemonic masculinity and the subjugation of women, who’s to say that a similarly nefarious plan couldn’t be hatched by the machines to subjugate humanity?  I don’t know if I believe this (or just don’t want to), but I recognize the power of technology as a shaper of and respondent to humanity.  I sincerely hope that we figure out, as Bostrom (2015) suggests, how to manage our continued exploration of technology!

I’ve failed to address how this practically applies to my work… as a teacher, the influence of networked life on students is profound.  Simple examples like language fluency show how the changing communication technology shapes learning. The creation of unrealistic social expectations through MMORPG and other gaming systems impacts how students interact with one another in the classroom. Children who develop cognitively in fixed rules gaming/app environments become college students with a fixed understanding of what’s possible in the world.  I think this last example (anecdotally) creates myriad problems in creative fields such as graphics, web design, and advertising; an area I plan to continue exploring!

Can you tell I love this stuff?!

James

References

Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T.P., and Pinch, T.J.,(eds).  (1987). The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Bostrom, N. (2015, March) What happens when our computers get smarter that we are? [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/nick_bostrom_what_happens_when_our_computers_get_smarter_than_we_are

Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shlain, L. (1989). The alphabet versus the goddess: The conflict between word and image.  London: Penguin Books