Technology: The Middle Way

I sometimes wonder whether we might be better off if we could separate our curiosity and invention from our need for speed.  This seems a bit weird, given that I’m often frustrated with how slowly things work in academic libraries–so often, I’m the one agitating for jumping in with both feet, trying something out, and just seeing whether it works.  I do think there’s a need for that, in our field.  But I also think that academic librarians are a cautious, methodical subset of the larger population, and that most people are, in fact, in a much bigger hurry to do things than we are.

That’s part of a larger conversation and I’m going to cheat and not support it right now–I’m just going to let it hang there, because I’m really more interested in a slightly different topic.  Which is:  why are we so good at inventing things, and so bad at using them?

I wonder this all the time, as I read about the millions we’re spending on technology in higher education, and the billions we’re pouring into science and technology outside of academe.  I don’t think spending money on technology and research is bad.  Far from it, I love my computer(s), and by now I can’t imagine life without wireless, or my cell phone. But I do wonder why we’re always racing forward to build the next gadget, before we’ve even begun to tackle the issues created by the ones we have.

Writ large, it seems to me that there’s a serious gap in our culture, between the innovators and the users.  In practical terms, Qantas is now offering in-flight WiFi and laptop power.  That sounds great, until you think about the global digital divide, the huge environmental cost of air travel, and the differences between working online for an 8-hour flight versus reading a book or sleeping or talking to another human being, or otherwise protecting some portion of your life from the constant feed.  Then it starts to look a little more complicated.

Writ small, it seems to me that in academic libraries, there’s a gap between technology evangelists and…everyone else.  In practical terms, we have some very forward-looking people moving us in the direction of wikis, texting, blogs, Second Life, Facebook, digital archives, iPods,  chat, open-source CMS software, YouTube…you name it.  We have many more people who use some of these things but at a very basic or passive level, or who don’t use any of them at all.  Conversations between these two groups can get stilted, sometimes.

It seems to me that there’s a disconnect between the vanguard and the rest of the troops–there’s a need for a cohort of people who are comfortable with, and curious about, technology, who even have a certain percentage of their job devoted to technology work–but who still have one foot firmly planted in the traditional world of libraries.  In practice, I think of my job this way.  I’m not an evangelist–on that bell curve of adoption rates, I’m somewhere in the middle.  I’ve been using Google Docs to collaborate for months now, but I’m still hanging onto my old flip phone.  (The battery’s dying; I have to replace it.)  I use Picnik.com to edit photos online, but I’m ambivalent about Twitter.

I try to listen with both ears–one for the evangelists, one for the traditionals.  Technology, removed from context and meaning, is no good to us.  Turning our backs on technology is also a bad idea.  Human beings are smart, but as anyone who’s ever taught a freshman research class knows, we like simple answers and absolutes.  There’s a need in our libraries and in our society for people who can help pave a middle way…and then get everyone walking down it, headed in the same direction.

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University of New Orleans in Second Life

The University of New Orleans is getting ready to offer classes in Second Life, according to this bit in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I cautiously add this to my cache of “interesting, forward-thinking uses of technology in education” file.  Although given the difficulty I had in setting up SL on my own workstation at UC Berkeley, I wonder how many students in the NOLA area are equipped with the bandwidth, memory, and hardware to do the same.

Regardless, I like the way they’re thinking.  Now, what would make this feel truly visionary and full-circle?  Offering classes on geopolitics related to climate change.  (I’m one of those who subscribes to the theory that weather catastrophes like Katrina are worsening because of global warming, and that we’d better do something about it soon.)