Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Identity, History, and Avatars of Knowledge

Identity is a powerful theme, and history plays off it in various odd ways. Sometimes, it seems pretty limited to sovereign states and their fates -- the politics of nations, conflicts, wars.
being shot by one of my students in a play
Fair enough. Those realities do shape our world. But what if we read history in terms of how people communicate, or how everything changes when knowledge technologies change?

I think print, as a technology, is much like the emerging nation-states that began to emerge as political entities in the Renaissance. It came into the world in a big way, complete with its own languages and literatures and its own sense of empire.
my Machiavelli pose
The Protestant Reformation just wouldn't have happened without the printing press. But it made identity all the more problematic. Where to put one's loyalties? To king or to the pope?
the day I was released as bishop in June 2010
And as time moved forward toward today, it got even stranger as you could represent yourself at a distance to other people through pictures or even motion pictures. The more media, it appears, the more identities one has.
And this finally leads the History of Civilization inevitably to the film, Avatar.
my son and his fiancee after Photoshopped into Avatar na'vi creatures
I'm only semi-joking here. Today's digital media are avatars of knowledge -- alternate embodiments from traditional text-based knowledge.

You change the form of something, though, and somehow you change its essence. Is the following really Shakespeare's sonnet 1) when it's read aloud by an actor? (sonnets weren't performed on stage like plays); 2) accompanied by music? (certainly changes how one responds to a text when you add a new medium); 3) when its text is animated through kinetic typography (me playing with Adobe After Effects)?

Maybe the history of civilization is really just a set of avatars, one period or location or medium simply inflecting another. In that sense, the past is an avatar of the present, or the present is one of the past. There are strong parallels both directions, and the fun happens when you start figuring out how the various media mediate experience, history, truth -- the works.

Let's have some fun this semester.

Monday, August 30, 2010


whoami is an old Unix command that simply tells you who what username you are logged in as. These types of computer systems allow you to login as one person, but then temporarily act as another user or even as the superuser. In the days when the only interface to a computer was a command line interface, it could sometimes be confusing to remember which user account you were currently using. Hence, the whoami command was created to provide a simple reminder.

Being a Computer Science professor, this seems like an appropriate way to introduce myself -- by showing you the output of the whois command on my computer. On my laptop, which runs the Ubuntu version of the Linux operating system, this is what it shows:
$ whoami
(Most command line interfaces use a black background with white text because it is easier to read.)

My last name is Zappala, which is a fairly common name in Sicily.  The few times I've visited the place my grandfather is from, I'm welcomed as a long-lost son, simply because of my last name.  There is even a dairy company run by a ZappalĂ  family, so when you eat at a restaurant, you get butter packets with my last name displayed prominently:
A more clever command line interface might respond:
$ whoami
One of five brothers raised in an Italian-Catholic family who joined the LDS church in graduate school
Because of my heritage I've learned to love researching my family history.  The Italians were great at keeping detailed records, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed copies of nearly every small town in the country.  And these records have a wealth of information -- marriage records list not just the bride and groom names, but their ages, birth place, their parents names, and the maiden names of their mothers.  In some cases, the records also include the birth certificates of the bride and groom, plus the death certificates of any parents that had already died.  In the latter case, a grandparent stood in for the deceased parent, and if the grandparent had already died, that death certificate is also included.  Pretty amazing.

Of course, my mom would not want me to leave out that her side of the family is Danish, English, and Scottish.   I was raised with a mixture of Italian traditions (HUGE meals whenever we visited my Italian grandparents) and Danish desserts, with attendance at Catholic mass every Sunday a must, plus serving as an altar boy for any weddings or funerals that occurred each week.

If my computer was smart enough to access my Facebook profile, it might respond:
$ whoami
Associate Professor of Computer Science at BYU, husband, dad, landscaper, painter, reader, hiker, photographer, cook, and family historian
I have a BS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in Computer Science from USC, which is where I met Prof. Burton.  I initially taught at the University of Oregon, and came to BYU in 1984.  I met my wife at USC as well, where she was studying film criticism, and we have three kids.  Because we own a house, I have become the landscaper and painter in my spare time.  I love reading, which is one of the reasons I'm excited to teach this class -- it's a great excuse to read something other than Computer Science texts.  I enjoy hiking in the woods and would love to take a photography class some day.  This is one of my favorite photos of Yellowstone:

I'm also an avid cook, and particularly enjoy making homemade pizza:

Finally, the most accurate result of whoami might be:
$ whoami
a geek
I mean that in a good way.  My goal for this class is to help you to understand a little bit about Computer Science and how computing concepts intersect with the history of Western civilization.  I will do whatever I can to help demystify the world of computing for you.  I hope you'll find that computing can provide an interesting way of interpreting our readings, and that our texts can also illuminate our understanding of computing technology and its impact on our lives.  Along the way, we'll both become more familiar with using digital media to express ourselves and to make connections with each other and the world.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Welcome to the class!

You should have received some email from us by now, welcoming you to our class, BYU Honors 202 Western Civilization and the Digital World.  The email contains some basic information about our course.  Here is a brief recap:

Technical Expertise
Are you a digital native? Some people think that if you grew up with email and the Internet that somehow you have magical computing abilities. Well, we are assuming you all are comfortable with computers, but that's all. Some of this course is devoted to helping you achieve better digital literacy with various tools that we will be learning in "labs" alongside the historical content. We expect everyone to be willing to try a few digital tools, but you don't need to be a super-geek to profit from this course!

You will not find textbooks at the BYU bookstore for this course. Most of our readings will be found online, or they will be individually chosen by you following our recommendations. You can purchase through Amazon or any other outlet, and can choose whether to get a hardcopy or electronic edition.

Self-directed Learning
This course has a heavy emphasis on self-directed learning. This means that we will introduce core concepts and themes, but expect you to make use of available resources (both online and otherwise) to learn what is outlined in the course learning outcomes. Those outcomes are spelled out on the course syllabus. 

Course Website
We will be using Instructure rather than Blackboard, for our course syllabus / website. We'll have that ready shortly and send you a link to it. The site will include assignments, a wiki, discussion forums, and grades.

The main way that you will be demonstrating your learning during this course will be through posts you make on a personal blog. If you are already a blogger and wish to use your existing blog, that's great. But if you are not, or if you wish to use a separate blog just for this course, then you are encouraged to set up a blog for free through Blogger . This is free and simple to do. We will be providing you additional information about how to blog and how you will be evaluated for your blogging on the course website.

Right now Amazon is offering to students a free Amazon Prime membership for a year. While this is not a requirement, you might consider getting this while you can. This provides free two-day shipping on most products, including textbooks for this or other classes. Regardless of whether you get this service, we do wish for you to have an Amazon account so that you can use their wishlist feature as you browse things that are relevant to our course.

Cell Phones
We assume most of you keep a cell phone pretty handy, and we would like to incorporate a bit of mobile technology into our course. (If you don't have a cell phone or don't wish to be involved, this is not a requirement.) The course website we will send out SMS (text) messages with reminders about readings, assignments, and events. If you choose to make your cell phone number available to others class members, it will make it possible for you to coordinate with one another as we organize into groups for various reasons.

Laptops / Netbooks / Smartphones
We encourage you to bring and use your mobile computing devices in class. It is not required that you have a computer during class, however.