Thursday, August 04, 2005

Technology and the desert...

Killed my first scorpion this weekend. Hardy, dangerous, well-adapted little devil. Nearly put my hand right on him, which I am happy to learn from AZ veterans would not have killed me - just hurt like hell. They tell me that short of squishing nothing kills these guys. A good metaphor for what early settlers of Arizona must have been like. Facing this whole monsoon season (forget that whole "dry heat" thing during monsoon), the brutal heat of the summer, the scarce water...that must have taken a hardy brand of people...whether they were the Hohokom, the Navaho, the Spanish, the Franciscan missionaries, the gold prospectors, or the cowboys...These are people who could handle themselves and cope with whatever got dished out...

Not like me. I wouldn't last a week out here without the benefits of civilization. I'm a technology guy. Couldn't even think about coming to the desert if there was no air conditioning, no electricity, no water projects. For people like me to live and be happy, we need a massive, rapidly evolving technology infrastructure to keep us going - cooling the air, lighting the lights, bringing the food and water.

It's not just about creature comfort either. We need bits too, and plenty of 'em as fast as you can get them to us - broadband and wireless to PCs, laptops, cell phones, PDAs. Bits that inform us, bits that entertain us, bits that keep us in touch with our far flung communities, and show us what we can buy or sell.

Fortunately for me, my many predecessors in Arizona have already laid this technology in, with more of it coming every day. And Arizona State University is a key player in keeping that technology infrastructure coming. My pal Jim Buizer and his collegaues will tell you that life can only be lived in a sustainable way here in the Valley of the Sun if appropriate technological solutions can be brought to bear to continue to provide the water, power and livable space that will continue to make the desert an attractive place to live in the coming decades. I'm glad they're thinking about those issues now.

Humans are technological animals. I'm enjoying a book by Andy Clark right now that puts forward the idea the we are "Natural Born Cyborgs" . He puts forward the thesis that it doesn't take computer chips embedded in your head to make you a cyborg (a technologically enhanced human). His take is that humans have been cyborgs for a long time(like, since the invention of language) -- not mechanically or electronically enhanced, but technologically enhanced.

"The human mind, if it is to be the physical organ of human reason, simply cannot be seen as bound by the biological skinbag. (< i love that term skinbag - AVS > )In fact it has never been thus restricted and bound at least not since the first meaningful words were uttered on some ancestral plain. But this ancient seepage has been gathering momentum with the advent of texts, PC's, coevolving software agents, and user adaptive home and office devices. The mind is just less and less in the head."

I love this kind of thing, because I believe something profound is going on in our time. People's minds have been expanded and empowered by technology since old long since. But people today, borne on the back of unprecedented exponential growth in technologies directly related to how individuals process information, have the opportunity to change fundamentally.

Google is the canonical example of course. For many things, answers that were days in the fetching are now seconds or minutes in the fetching. In some very real sense people can use google as an extension of their memories, to "remember" things that they never knew. What makes someone who uses google more of a cyborg than someone who uses the library? Google's interface is faster, more pervasive, more portable, more flexible and more personalized than the card catalog. It feels more like a piece of you, in the same way that once you've driven your car long enough you can "feel" where its fenders are.

The pace at which these tools is arriving is increasing. Take a wireless blackberry for example. Communications with a blackberry are tight. The screen is bright, but the unit is light. The keyboard is easy to use, but small enough to carry all the time. Its a phone, but the interface is visual. It talks with an earpiece that's easy to wear (no wires). Its a sensing device for the electromagnetic spectrum really. Its not perfect of course, but it does connect it users much more closely to each other and to electronic information in general.

"The human brain is nature's great chameleon. Pumped and primed by native plasticity, it is poised for profound mergers with the surrounding web of symbols, culture, and technology. Human thought and reason emerges from a nest in which biological brains and bodies, acting in concert with non-biological props and tools, build, benefit from, and then rebuild an endless succession of designer environments."

So what's all this have to do with the New American University? Well, the people of the New American University will do their magic within a technological environment that merges with them in ways we are only just beginning to dream about. When we design a portal, or issue a device, build out a wireless network, or deploy a web application -- what we're really doing is reconfiguring the New American University's "designer environment", changing the "props and tools" that are part of us. When we do the job right, things get more than easier...they get tighter and become more closely a part of who we are, how we work, how we think. The New American University is a kind of organism --- a collection of people with common purpose. But those people will achieve because they will be connected by a web of technology that helps them discover, create, retain and communicate knowledge in ways never before seen.

So wire me up. Let's rock!


pacifictoy August 10, 2005 at 7:16 AM  

I really like the quote "The mind is just less and less in the head."

It's very true that in this age, humans (or biological skinbag) can't live without computers.

But, should the computer 'assist' the human brain or 'replace' it?

I think most of the time, the computers are replacing the human brain. Our brain is slower, and forgetful.

1. I am hooked on GPS. One day, I drove to Des Moines, and forgot my GPS. Oh my, I felt uneasy, and inconfident navigating the streets of Des Moines. Although I made it OK, I felt uneasy at every turn, thinking constantly if that was the right turn or not.

2. At a meeting yesterday, a digital modeling instructor reported that he has been using a stereoscopic CAD viewer in his class for more than 6 months (
Recently, he noticed that the students are losing the ability to mentally rotate 3D objects.
WOW! is that because the students now have the stereoscopic CAD viewer?
or the instructor just never trained them to do mental rotation?

I love technology, and I don't think I can live without it. However, I also believe that technology has the very potential of dumbing the masses. I feel that I am getting dumber because of my GPS. *but I love it... haha*

How far should we depend on tech?
if all else fail, can we still use pen and paper?