• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Trivial Distraction

Some reasons it's hard to get folks (students, particularly) to look at the big picture.

September 25, 2013

Walk with me.

Yesterday, I took a bit of time to figure out what sessions I want to attend at the upcoming AASHE conference.  The most convenient way seemed to be to download the schedule to my Android; I could then not only pick what presentations to attend, I could also carry the information (including any possible "plan b" presentations) right in my pocket.

One thing I've noticed about academic conferences is that they have too many sessions to pick from.  Without getting into issues of motivation or intent, I ascribe this pattern to an insufficiency of curation.  Commercially-oriented conferences tend not to have the same problem, perhaps because commercial organizers have a clearer idea of what they want the conference's :leave behinds" to be.  Anyway . . .

When I tried to view the conference schedule on my 4 1/2" (diagonal) screen, I realized I'd made a mistake.  Choosing from a list of options which is 3-5 times longer than the screen can hold is frustrating, at best.  I'll still have the downloaded schedule in my pocket as I attend the conference, but to make my selections I reverted to using the larger monitor attached to my desktop computer.  (At least I didn't have to print the full thing out!)

Anyway, I got to thinking about how small, convenient media (both hardware- and software-based) bias communication, and taste, and thought towards small simple content.  The good news about social media is its democratizing effect -- freedom of the press is no longer limited to the man (sic) who owns one.  The neutral news is that now everybody thinks they've got something to say that's worth listening to, and most of us are wrong.  The bad news is that, by overloading our sensory and cognitive channels with drivel (oops, I mean "noise"), media -- and not just social media -- is drowning out the signal.

A week or two ago, an item on NPR's Morning Edition asked what a song "that costs $5.00" sounds like.  The focus of the piece was an increase in downloading of music in various high-fidelity (and large file size) formats, even at premium prices.  The discussion mentioned the technical limitations of popular .mp3 files, and that format's unsuitability for playback of fine-grained, layered, subtle and complex music.  Immediately, my mind jumped to the fact that popular music over the past 10-20 years has become decreasingly fine-grained, layered, subtle, complex, even (country music aside) singable.  The music industry's business model has moved first from vinyl to CD and then from CD to .mp3, with a technical decrease in fidelity at each transition.  Not surprisingly, music producers have shifted their product mix toward genres which download quickly and reproduce well on even low-fidelity equipment.  Rip a Glenn Miller LP (no, I'm not that old) to .mp3 and you can't help but hear the loss in audio quality; rip a Goodie Mob CD to the same format -- you won't hear any difference.

It's not just Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Flickr and itunes.  It's everything in this society which promises instant gratification and rewards a short attention span.  To an extent, it's partly the idea that if it's on the internet it should be free.  Inhibiting internet content creators from getting paid for their work discourages long-form thought.  If you doubt that, look at the articles on any of the many "content farms"; until search engines got better at looking past them, these sites specialized in drawing lots of eyeballs by promising more information than they ever delivered.  The business model certainly paid; content farm writers got paid more per word than most other internet content creators. 

I could lay some of the blame at the feet of the US education system, but I'm not sure how useful that would be.  Increasingly, I'm convinced that our educational processes are properly aligned to reproduce the consumerist society we all know and love.  Until and unless society's values change, it's unrealistic to think that the education system is going to undergo a sea change.  

I guess I just hope that, if media and other technology improves sufficiently, at least some of the tendency towards high noise and low signal may be mitigated.

I know, I'm a hopeless romantic.  Hope you enjoyed the walk.


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