November 21, 2003

I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about this morning. Fortunately I heard a brief news story about how many colleges are having to rewire their dormitories to accommodate students’ needs. Specifically they’re having to add new wiring, plugs, and small nuclear reactors to accommodate students who deck out their dorm rooms with refrigerators, microwaves, big screen television sets, DVD players, CD players, camcorders, answering machines, cell-phone rechargers, laptops, desktops, jacuzzis, and those wacky lightning bolt balls that respond to your voice. My first thought was, How can students afford all that stuff? My second thought was, Where do they put it all? I had to keep half my books in my closet because my dorm room was only slightly bigger than the average closet.

Of course the second question answered the first one: today’s students probably are doing without pesky things like books, and with all that stuff in their dorm rooms they don’t need a social life outside their rooms, right? When I was a college student we were allowed to have two appliances in our rooms: refrigerators and televisions. Microwaves were forbidden, and a laptop was someone who was so drunk at a party they fell into your lap. It’s not that I have a problem with all this technology…well, yes it is. I work in a library, and I handle these things called "books". Maybe you remember them. For one thing I’m worried about today’s students who are tomorrow’s professors and administrators never setting foot in a library. If they don’t think libraries are valuable now, what’s going to happen when they need to make budget cuts to pay for the current generation’s deficits? And maybe I’m a bit of a technophobe when I see someone walking around with one of those hands-free cell phones and a handheld computer and I wonder, "How do you get away from all that to relax?" Then I find out they’re listening to a football game and playing Tetris – which, though it troubles me, I have to accept that as some peoples’ idea of relaxing.

But then there’s the university professor in Leeds, England who has implants in his body so that university buildings "recognize" him as he enters. Maybe this Neo-Strangelove just gets a kick out of a computer voice saying, "Good morning, Herr Doctor," as he comes in, but I’m afraid he’s pioneering devices for companies to monitor how much time their employees spend at their desks – and maybe even what they’re doing in their off hours. Optimists present technology as a good thing, a way to cope with life’s problems. James Bond couldn’t get out of half the scrapes he gets himself into if it weren’t for his ballpoint pen with a high-powered laser, or his watch that carries a propane heater.

And let’s not forget Star Trek. In the original series, Kirk would say, "Scotty, I need you to make the ship move…forward," and Scotty would say, "Nae, I canna do it, Captain, it’s agin’ the laws of physics." But on Star Trek: The Next Generation all Captain Picard has to do is say, "Mr. LaForge, we need to turn the Enterprise into a giant ice cream cone". LaForge, who has magical engineering powers granted him by the hair clip he wears over his eyes, will rub his chin and say, "Well, it’s going to take a couple of hours, and I’ll have to reroute the heating units through the replicators." In those scenarios technology is a good thing, but, to blatantly plagiarize a line from Woody Allen, What about the hydrogen bomb? Have you ever seen what happens when one of those things falls off a desk? In a slightly less sinister scenario, imagine a world where your television stores demographic information about you and instead of just commercials you get a stream of advertisements, credit card offers, and Nigerian money scams aimed directly at your narrow demographic range. Maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but think about this: with all that entertainment on demand in their dorm rooms, what’ll convince students to go out? When I was in college we couldn’t have all that stuff in our rooms so we had to get out and interact with other living human beings for entertainment, which gave us opportunities to meet people like Tom, the old man who ran the finest pool hall on this side of the Atlantic and entertained us with stories of antebellum Indiana. We couldn’t cook food in our rooms so we had to go to the school cafeteria and be treated to chicken that was crispy on the outside and bloody and half-frozen on the inside. Because I work in a library I know that the big thing these days in libraries is databases designed to provide patrons the precise snippet of information they need on demand. If the information’s already there in one place, why do research at all? And if you can’t make up your mind what you want to study, how are you supposed to browse around and find what interests you? On the other hand, you may have noticed the irony in my attack on technology being based on something I heard from a device that picks up signals originating hundreds of miles away that was said by a pre-recorded voice. And I’m now sending this to you via the Internet.

Okay, even I have to admit that technology has some uses – but it also has its place.

Enjoy this week’s offerings.


















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