Monday, October 17, 2011

Reading the Present through the Past

As Daniel Zappala has done in his retrospective post, I wish to reflect on the Honors history of civilization course we pioneered at Brigham Young University in Fall, 2010. I'd like to point out in particular how we connected the digital present to ideas and movements from the history of civilization.

  • The Catholicism of computing culture
    In many respects, as the Catholic church was to people in Europe in the Middle Ages, so are technology and its forces to us today. Both have been dominant cultural institutions giving order, routine, and an orientation to one's time and outlook. Our ubiquitous devices and online habits receive from us a kind of reverential devotion that directly compares to Christian devotional practices.
  • Brave new worlds
    The voyages of discovery that characterized the Early Modern period and opened up new, revitalizing fields of action compare to the new worlds of activity opened up through computing today, including simulations, virtual worlds, and a range of new opportunities for work, play, and political involvement. We see a similar utopian optimism with the promise of improved education and social conditions emerging, alongside serious concerns about the exploitation and abuse of digital resources. 
  • Maps and tools
    Those brave new worlds of the past required new maps, new navigation tools, and new mental constructs to enter. And so we took on the issue of searching and brought order to our explorations through social bookmarking. Like those in the Renaissance who were kept from new worlds by staying within a familiar geography (or customary ideas about geography), so we can remain stuck in the Google or Wikipedia Rut and need ways out. Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon set forth a Novum Organum (a "new instrument") for knowledge (in contrast to Aristotle's Organum, his logical methods). Similarly, in the Information Age new tools have been required such as data and metadata, algorithms, and scalable systems.
  • Gutenberg revolution redux
    Today's cultural transformations compare to the influence of print in the Renaissance: a new medium is rewriting the rules of every major social institution. We live in a Digital Renaissance that, like the previous media revolution, has exponentially opened up learning and interaction. The ensuing chaos requires people to bring order to it. Daniel compared the work of Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, to Project Gutenberg. Each has been an effort to gather and make broadly available standardized texts, vastly expanding the reach of books. And just as Renaissance printing shops created publishing opportunities never before available, the same thing is happening in today's digital publishing revolution, especially via self-publishing. That revolution has to do not just with publishing opportunities, but with novel ways to experience books in the digital age.
  • The Information Reformation
    Within the Protestant Reformation can be seen the tension between centralized authority and decentralized participation that not only characterizes Renaissance religion, but also parallels the proprietary and open models of software development Eric Raymond has referred to as The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Just as early Protestants sought to protect their freedom of worship, so electronic freedom is being fought for today. We also learned that copyright, a tool that in the age of print helped to encourage the development of ideas, compared to the enclosure laws of the 18th-19th centuries and has now become an oppressive force of its own, countered by the Open Source movement and the more progressive idea of a Creative Commons. The original Reformation spawned the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and we can see something similar to this in major industries (music) corporations (Disney) and even countries (China) as they use the new tools to re-assert economic or political control.
  • The new Encyclopedists
    The Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment (Diderot, etc.) compare to Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia as both have inaugurated large-scale efforts to gather and organize the world's knowledge.
  • A new popular press
    In the 18th century popular participation in publishing dramatically increased with the rise of newspapers and periodical literature. This compares directly to today's blogosphere in which a broadened literate public is commenting on current topics.
  • Evolving economics
    Adam Smith set for the rules of supply and demand in accordance with the conditions of his day. Today, as an abundance economy replaces the scarcity economy, new economic principles are required, such as those explained by Chris Anderson in his books, The Long Tail and Free: The Future of a Radical Price.
  • Industrializing knowledge
    Just as standardization made possible mass production and material prosperity in the Industrial Age, so web and information standards are equally critical to the Digital Age.
  • Reorganizing work
    The factory model of labor from the Industrial Age, reborn in the modern company, is not unlike the feudal model of labor from the Middle Ages with its centralized authority and resistance to change. But these models of labor are being challenged by emerging models of collaboration such as crowdsourcing. Software development has become a model for all collaborative work, working through problems of organizing labor and project management and evolving progressive methods such as agile development.
  • Political activism reborn
    Agitation for social change in the 19th or 20th century compares to online activism and digital manifestos. There are direct efforts to use the cybersphere to effect change in the real world, and to use online tools for various types of civil (or uncivil) disobedience.
  • Evolution and Innovation
    The biological principles of evolution are a way of understanding change, but they also provide a method for computation, genetic algorithms.
  • Romanticism reborn
    We see evidence of Romanticism recurring today in contemplating the creative Internet or in idealizing hackers. It also is evident in the aesthetic enthusiasm surrounding digital art or computer animation.
  • Digital Revolution
    In our course we sought to identify and analyze changes that brought us to the present, but also to help bring about change for the future. In order to boldly take the message of the digital revolution forward, we created an event, "Digital Revolution," in which students made presentations about digital literacy and how they had applied their learning about history to issues of today. This was broadcast live on Justin.TV and several hundred people participated both in person and online.