Submitted by Lev Gonick on January 7, 2010 - 3:00am
What a difference a year makes. Most CIOs in higher education are turning their 2009 holiday stockings inside out looking for any extra crumbs that Kris Kringle might have left behind. The general fiscal crunch facing higher education has led most technology leaders to assert that double digit percentage cuts to IT budgets makes playing the holiday Scrooge a piece of cake compared to the negative consequences to core IT services and offerings facing the college campus in the year ahead.
To those living with the hopeful yet delusional strategy of an early return to the status quo ante, my suggestion is to get use to the so-called “new normal." The reality of our 2010 technology services portfolio on the campus is likely to make CIO leadership seem more like ‘high siding,' the art of leading a white water river raft down a Class 6 set of rapids, than the image of the captain of the enterprise ocean liner that many associate with the slow moving, reliable, robust, legacy organization on campus. High siding is the deliberate act of leaning the weight of the entire raft and its riders toward the obstacles ahead, rather than approaching the obstacles sideways following the current.
The new normal carries the contradictions of both a fragile macroeconomic recovery and a countervailing trend of only modest increases in enrollment and new federal research investments predicted for the fall of 2010 (with the important exception of the community college environment). The new normal is less financial leverage and smaller investments in core infrastructure, including IT on campus, even though the price of borrowing money has never been lower. The new normal is more and faster disruption to the consumer technology ecosystem at the same time that levels of investment in our aging IT enterprise infrastructure decline in both real and relative terms.
Finally, the new normal is reflected in the contrarian wisdom of the need to be more, not less, innovative, more creative, not more conventional. During a downturn, at the very moment when the real fiscal pressures leads to squeezing out almost all of our abilities to provide strategic capacity, this is the very time our universities need it most.
The portfolio of managing requirements for operational excellence, customer service, and even more selective innovation (R&D) activity has never been more challenging. Taken together, the prospects of multiple years of negative budget growth in IT on campus, end-user expectations for near real time, free, and fully integrated services to their consumer world (choose your favorite mobile platform as an example), and a series of real Tylenol 3 headaches around security and personal information breaches -- both in the enterprise domain and across the distributed parts of the campus -- portend for a wild river ride ahead in 2010.
With dueling banjos strumming in the background, if you’re old enough to remember the movie “Deliverance,” here are my top 10 trends for higher education for the year ahead.
(1) Public Cloud Services Go Private. Cloud services are a wide range of hosted services and solutions that migrate from the data center on campus to hosting environments somewhere on the Internet. The “somewhere” is known as the Cloud. First came e-mail, then calendaring. What were once critical on-campus services are now living a normal and nomadic lifestyle. The overall outcome for the campus has been positive. But it doesn’t stop there. Hundreds of campuses have migrated their video platforms off campus to iTunes and YouTube. Millions of hours of branded academic and academic-related content including lectures, performances, panels, colloquia, and student content are now reliably served up in the Cloud. New cloud services roll out weekly. In 2010 we will likely see the next frontier of these tools, and even turnkey solutions. Expect new “private cloud” services that allow the same economies of scale associated with public cloud services, yet are “protected” with a layer of privacy and regulatory ability. These new private cloud services will afford additional certainty that data are residing on geographically knowable infrastructure, or in a way that assures compliance with export licensing, or honors certain service level agreements regarding privacy or a no commingling requirement for certain data. More pragmatically, starting in 2010, universities will want to embrace a hybrid architecture for storage and computing that combines on-campus resources, private cloud services for others, and open public cloud resources for other kinds of applications. The emerging typology will go a long way to define taxonomies for our services portfolio for 2010 and beyond. Hard resistance to this megatrend remains futile; the value proposition only grows in its attractiveness. Taking on cloud services on campus is a proxy for an always important dialogue on what constitutes today’s core services for IT and what can be considered context around which others have developed core competencies.
(2) The President’s Climate Commitment Meets the Campus Data Center. Nearly 700 college and university presidents have signed up to go green. Plans follow and each one contains a commitment to be scored. IT infrastructure on campus produces perhaps as much as 20 percent of the total carbon footprint of the campus. According to the Climate Group, 37 percent of the carbon footprint comes from network electronics, 14 percent from the data center, and 49 percent from PCs and peripherals. Going green is important to University Presidents, our Boards, our students, and hopefully to the IT community. One trend for reducing campus carbon footprints is the move to the Cloud. Cap and trade, and/or some kind of carbon regime, is emerging on the fast track. There’s a lot of work to be done by the IT community both on campus and in the corporate vendor community to get on board. In 2010 we’ll see several major offerings to contribute to reducing campus carbon footprints by investing scarce resources to virtualize more of our data center infrastructure, monitor our infrastructure on an even more granular scale, and embrace campus-wide commitment to go both smart and green through our purchasing offices. Pro-active engagement by IT on the Climate Commitment and our own infrastructure affords us an important opportunity to work with the facilities and planning communities on adopting a smart and green plan across the campus. More introspectively, embracing the commitment also positions IT leaders to begin an overdue internal discussion on organizing a single, unified, and intergraded network engineering team for data, voice, video, and now data center services.
(3) Big Science meets Next Generation CyberInfrastructure. In the past 12 months more than $100 billion in federal stimulus funds have found their way to universities and research labs across the country. Coordination of the big science projects across the federal agencies has been constrained by one time gold rush fever, combined with bureaucratic imperatives and exacerbated by the directive to get dollars out the door quickly. Obviously not all big science is computationally based. That being said, university-based big science teams together with their computational research infrastructure colleagues on campus and across the country have an opportunity in 2010 to map out how to leverage this unprecedented one-time set of investments into a set of sustainable, network-enabled and network-based mega science endeavors. It’s been more than seven years since the NSF blue-ribbon committee in 2002/2003 posed the question “how can we remove existing barriers to the rapid evolution of high performance computing, making it truly usable by all the nation's scientists, engineers, scholars, and citizens?” While the challenge of breakthrough science remains as compelling and important as ever, the absence of an integrated national cyberinfrastructure planning framework and action plan serves as a major rate-limiting dead weight on the nation’s future. 2010 would be a great time to join the President’s Climate Commitments on campus and turn them and a handful of other big science challenges into a national call and strategy for scientific renewal and advancement, leveraging next generation cyberinfrastructure.
(4) Time to Declare the PC Dead and Embrace the Mobile Platform. In 2010, it will become more obvious than ever that the PC as we have known it for the past quarter of a century is obsolete. For the foreseeable future there will be three kinds of emergent learning hardware platforms. One will be a fixed and tethered brick (or something) product designers can make look more interesting than the only semi-intelligent thin-client representing the legacy of the PC. The second hardware platform will be personalized-pizza-box-sized “laptop” computers. Now the dominant hardware platforms on campus, laptops, netbooks, and tablets are all descendants of the PC, featuring similar interfaces enhanced by mobility. The third and clearly emergent hardware platform for learning is the mobile smart pad, including smartphones, e-book readers, next generation iPods, and what will likely be a bevy of smart pad entrants in the market in the year ahead. The major difference of this third generation of hardware is that we have all but left the old computer interface behind us. For those interested in disruptive innovation, the broad availability of the underlying platform infrastructure, devices, and generative application environment for smart pads is where the action should be. Look for innovative applications relevant to the campus associated with geo-tagging, location-based services, and a whole new generation of intelligent search tools related to our work, study, and play on campus. It is time to break with the 25 year run of PC culture on campus centered on hardware break fix. With new platform technologies and application development tools, the next 25 years of personal computing support should move to developing and services and experiences that contribute to innovation, workflow, and discovery.
(5) The E-Book Reader Grows up and Goes to Campus. 2009 marked the birth of the e-book reader in the university marketplace. The first set of entrants put the already nervous higher education (text)book market on notice. New business models, publishing models, revenue sharing strategies, and new models around intellectual property and the assigned ‘text’ for a course proliferated and served to dislodge the staid legacy economy for many universities. If buying second hand books online was not enough, the new e-book readers were perceived by some to disintermediate traditional providers of services and economic benefit in the college supply chain. In 2010 a whole new generation of e-book readers will emerge as the life cycle of innovation really takes off for this class of mobile smart pads. Dedicated, single purpose readers will be eclipsed this year by new, integrated platforms supporting new functionality, Web services, rich media, open application development environments, and a wide range of new experimental interface approaches. Publishers, bookstores, technology, and entertainment giants will all clamor to the market, marking a significant if not final shift from the traditional bound book toward fully repurposable content for learning, including traditional texts.
(6) Social Networking Finds its Niche at College. The next killer app for social networking in support of the traditional curriculum on campus will be student tagged, rated, reused, and remixed learning content. The single most popular site among students at many universities is a tossup between Facebook and Google. Google is their library, Facebook is their hangout. Many students will spend more time per week on social networks, engaging, commenting, tagging, digging, and rating their experiences than they do watching traditional television, talking on the phone, in the physical library, and attending classes combined. Nearly a third of students report that they use existing social network platforms for studying and reviewing their courses. University technology strategists have spent five years trying to building alternative social networks. More recently a small cottage industry has flourished in building hooks from campus feeds to popular social networking platforms. The search for the Holy Grail continues. The most compelling content poised to undergo the social network effect is video content of everything in and around the learning environment on campus. Formal lectures, recitations, study groups, mini-documentaries, recordings at the nerd bar, reality tv for campus are all prime time candidates for a new part of the learning ecosystem. Look for early experimentation and emergent business models for repurposable and reusable video content for learning in 2010. Publishers, campus media consortia, platform players, and faculty innovators are all poised to make a run at the rich media centric learning environment.
(7) Course Management Platform Alternatives Make Major Inroads. Promising a kinder and gentler attitude to the competition, the dominant course management platform is coming to terms with a new reality in the marketplace. Campuses are not sanguine with a single dominant course management platform and have been voting with their feet. Course management services are emerging in publisher suites, platform players, new and maturing open source alternatives and dozens of atomized stand alone modules for popular services like grade books, and collaboration tools that readily connect to other web services. In 2010 expect an active listening effort by both dominant and emergent players in the course management space. New innovation and offerings are all but certain in the year ahead. While there is a temptation to spend time reflecting through the rear view mirror about the missteps and judgment of some of the decisions made in the course management vertical, the more important issue for 2010 is to see whether Blackboard or any of the other players can effectively execute on a new generation of requirements for learning systems. The stakes are high. The year ahead will be the most interesting since 1995 when Murray Goldberg began innovating and developing what would become known as WebCT, one of the first early entries in what would be known as the course management industry.
(8) Serious Gaming Gets Serious. Gaming software is now both big business (bigger than the Hollywood economy) and a more readily accepted pedagogical tool for a wider cross section of disciplines including science, history, sociology, business, economics, communication studies, engineering, and a wide range of health sciences. Serious gaming, as the term has been coined, is now working its way through faculty curriculum committees, faculty senates, and up to deans and provosts. In 2010 we will see an important inflection point reached as new company entrants join campus-based serious gaming software (both in solitary mode and massive online player formats) to build and compete for robust gaming platforms dedicated to the serious college market. Changes in the textbook and course management markets make the serious gaming platform particularly compelling in the immediate future.
(9) Mobile Security Hits the College Campus. Information security is an important and growing facet of the university IT landscape. Gone is our innocence. Our university networks and communities of users are prime targets for every conceivable denial of service attack cooked up by hackers from Azerbaijan to Zambia, all looking to earn their stripes. Campus information security leaders need to help the university get ahead of the curve on a range of emerging realities. Many CIOs have ignored or wished away the emergence of smart pad devices that integrate voice, video, and data services. After all, most use the public network and not our special campus networks. In 2010, expect to read research findings and security bulletins that report that the single fastest growing exposure and vulnerability facing the campus is the mobile smart pad device. While corporate enterprise CIOs have been gnashing their teeth for years on risk mitigation strategies for mobile security, 2010 holds high probability for that reality hitting the college campus. It’s not a matter of if mobile security headaches will bring down the wrath of audit committees and public exposures in the headlines of local and national media. It’s only a matter of when. My bet is 2010.
(10) Open Content meets the Open University and the Vision of the Metaversity. It’s hard not to reflect on the past decade as we say goodbye (good riddance) to the first decade of the 21st century. University CIOs have contributed in important ways to the transformations underway in the university mission over the past decade. The arc and rate of activities on our campuses, as breathtaking as they may seem, are moving at a completely different slope and velocity to the genuine explosion of open education, research, and innovation enveloping the broader Net ecosystem. On a global scale, on a population-wide vector, our institutions are generally ill-suited for addressing the needs and opportunities in 2010 and for the next generation. To be sure, universities are not heading for obsolescence. What continues to be worrisome is our collective ability to remain genuinely relevant to the Internet society in all its complexities and contradictions. While this country has a rather anemic tradition of Open Universities, these organizations all over the world are now engaged in regional and global dialogues on how the Open University platform can contribute to the Internet-scale challenges and opportunities. Former MIT President Charles Vest suggested (as early as 2006) that a meta-university would be “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced.” We’re quickly approaching the maturing of all the requisite elements in Vest’s analysis against ever sharper and growing emphatic need for collective response. In a year in which a movie called “Avatar” will likely be the odd- on favorite for a golden boy or two, look for new sources of inspiration and experimentation in framing up the 21st century metaversity project(s).
A decade from now, those reflecting on the second decade of the 2st century will likely point to the new normal, in which learning follows the student/professor rather than student/professor coming to learning and the research agenda. Technology is already far more than ‘just’ an enabler of 21st century learning. Both informed by and helping to shape the next 10 years of the intersection of technology, learning, and university leadership is an agenda that should excite the academy. The year 2010 will prove prescient in our ability to think beyond the possible.
Lev S. Gonick is vice president for information technology services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. He blogs about technology at Bytes From Lev.
Submitted by Lev Gonick on January 6, 2009 - 4:00am
What happens when tough economic times combine with fatigue across the campus community hyping the latest “killer app,” and the growing intolerance of disruptions to services occasioned by security-related activities? I think the intersection of these three realities represent the most important challenges for campus information technology leaders in 2009.
We have not seen three years of negative economic growth since the birth of the Internet. We are one year into the global recession and the crystal-ball gazing under way on most campuses is not producing rosy scenarios. Chief information officers at most universities are closing in on “core” operations as they respond to cost cutting requirements after more than five years of marginal growth.
CIOs are portfolio managers. Like their counterparts, CIO portfolio management is really about meeting three goals: operating effectively, satisfying customers, and selectively engaging in innovation (R&D). In the sort of three-year downturn that most experts envision, tough decisions will be required to perform strongly in all three of those areas.
For many university technology leaders, the emergence over the past couple of years of Web 2.0 technologies represented a confluence of maturing underlying technologies combined with the rise of what we asserted was the first really promising set of mass collaboration tools. Here we were sitting on the precipice of the long promised “transformational” potential of technology to the education enterprise -- and then the economy tanks.
In reality, the economic downturn is only one reason that the campus community is less enamored with Web 2.0 tools than most of us technologists. For many across the university the rate of change in introducing ever more exciting technologies has left them, to put it diplomatically, breathless. In reality, the hype over Web 2.0 is only the most recent instantiation of the long held view that we technologists are amusing ourselves and the rest of the campus to death, forever one gadget or applet away from the ultimate breakthrough.
Finally, whether it is the latest Facebook virus, botnets instigated from far flung corners of the world, or the now predictable “urgent” security fixes from our favorite vendors, there is a real sense across the campus that the “bad guys” are winning the war. What was simply a nuisance that could be solved with a bit of end-user education and throwing some hardware at the problem has emerged into our own full fledged war on the forces of evil on the Internet. Like recent international conflicts, most on the university campus are ready to conclude that we have neither a strategy for winning this war nor an exit strategy.
Combined, economic blues, end-user fatigue, and a growing sense of collective vulnerability to the forces that would seek to harm us has the campus technology community facing its biggest set of challenges in 25 years.
Against that sobering backdrop, here are my top 10 IT trends for higher education for 2009:
1. To The Cloud and Beyond. Watch for significant moves in the university space in the use of Internet-based, or “cloud,” technology that goes well beyond e-mail services. I expect we'll see the emergence of shared storage utilities and a range of “web services” in 2009 following industry trends, campus economic pressure, and ecological considerations. While the same resistance points will find their way into campus deliberations, resistance is too expensive, distracts us from where we can bring real value, and ultimately futile. But for the most regulated storage requirements, there really is no alternative.
2. The Consumer Reigns Supreme. There has been an academic debate in most large organizations for five years about how we were going to manage the growing presence of consumer technologies within our enterprises. No more. The tsunami is here. Those of us still debating the merits of attending to Facebook, iTouch/iPhone, streaming media, massive player online gaming, mashups, and virtual reality platforms are staring at the wall of this tidal wave of consumer technologies. New trends in 2009 will likely include the first college-centered breakthroughs for mobile computing after mass notification. Watch for location-based technologies and presence technologies embedded in mobile smart phones and other devices (like wi-fi enabled iTouch) to lead to the first set of scalable campus applets.
3. Streaming Media for Education Goes Mainstream. Students expect it. Teachers accept it. Network engineers will have to live with it. Academic technologists need to figure out how to scale it. In the next 12 months, I think YouTube, iTunes U, and the plethora of campus-based services for academic streaming media are going to hit main street. Economics plus assessment data now provide compelling evidence that student success is positively associated with the integration of streaming media into the capture and review of traditional learning models of instructor-centered delivery. In the next year I expect that we will see significant acceleration of efforts associated with video/speech to text technologies to provide real time transcripts for purposes of enhanced search capabilities. I also expect that large repositories of meta-tagged and transcoded academic assets (classes, recitations, seminars etc ...) will begin to emerge allowing for federated searches and mashing up of learning content by students and faculty alike.
4. SecondLife Goes Back to School. Initial exuberance and hype led to hundreds of universities experimenting with 3D Virtual Worlds three years ago. The user-generated universe requires new pedagogy and curriculum considerations. Academic technologists and the education community has learned a lot over the past several years. Look for new functionality and education-centered technology capabilities over the next year. The net result should be an exciting and provocative set of new collaborative capabilities to help enable more campus control and flexible tools for learning. Dust off your avatar and get ready for one of the most important collaborative learning platforms to make inroads in the year ahead.
5. e-Book Readers Disrupt the College Text Book Market Place. Early predictions of the demise of the college text book market in 2008 were highly exaggerated. Sony and Amazon (among others) are in the e-Book Reader space for the long haul. Early this year, expect to see new hardware form factors reflecting a more mature and robust technology. More important, I think we'll see pilot activity among the book publishers and the e-book publishing industry to work with the campus to create relevant tools for learning embedded in their core technologies.
6. The IT Help Desk Becomes An Enterprise Service Desk. Long underfunded and staffed with underpaid students, the IT help desk word is going to hit an inflection point this year, I think. Customer service matters. Truth is that with a few important notable exceptions, most campus help desks are not our strongest service lines. An emergent group of higher-education focused companies have entered this space and are offering a compelling value proposition for many campuses. On some campuses, the Berlin wall between IT help desks and facilities and other customer service organizations are also coming down. The trend line is about to hit a take-off point.
7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead.
8. ERP? What's That? No, I don't think the large enterprise resource planning systems that undergird our budgeting, human resources and other major administrative systems are going to fall off the face of the earth like antiquated dinosaurs in the next 12 months. I do think that ERP upgrades that many campuses are now facing, planning, and staging are going to need to be re-positioned. At a minimum, I think we will see decisions made to delay major upgrades for 18-24 months. It is also possible that pressure will grow in this next year on the duopoly of these integrated systems providers to re-open their maintenance and other fee schedules in exchange for continuing multi-year commitments from the campus community. We will also see new models mature in the hosting of ERP services both as shared services among the campus community and as a commercial service offering. For these glacially moving systems, change is happening. It's just hard sometimes to see the rate of change until you're looking in the rear view mirror 10 years from now.
9. In God We Trust -- Everyone Else Bring Data. Decision support software and data warehousing tools have been available on campus for well over a decade. While cultures of evidence are not well rooted in the decision making on many university campuses, the growing pressures for better decision making in the context of budget pressures is compelling the campus to make better decisions. The small priesthood of campus analysts with skills to support decision making have more job security than most. At the same time, look for new reporting tools and growing expectations that metrics, scorecards, and data analytics will be used to drive tough decision making on campus.
10. Smile, Interactive High Definition Video Conferencing moves from the Board Room to the Research Lab and the Lecture Hall. Facing budget pressures and public pressure to go green, corporations around the world are investing in next generation video conferencing. Moving operating dollars into infrastructure investments in this collaboration platform technology has led to significant reductions in travel costs, better space utilization, and a growing conscientiousness about carbon footprints. As businesses continue to look for capabilities to support global operations, video conferencing has become a daily part of many companies. The logic facing corporations now confront the university community. Over the past 18 months some public universities have been mandated to reduce their carbon footprints. Most everyone else is facing growing operating pressures pinching travel and other budget lines. New students care about pro-active green initiatives as part of their university experience. Over the next 12 months look for double digit growth in campus adoption of next generation video conferencing tools, including integrated collaboration technologies.
One more trend for good measure. Substitute this one if you disagree vehemently with any of the other items above.
11. The campus data center goes under the scope . Most every campus technology leader has been zinged for disaster recovery and business continuity planning. Add to this that there is exponential demand among the research community for computational research space to support high performance computing. The facilities community is under growing pressure to distribute the costs of power consumption on campus. Data centers consume disproportionate amounts of space, cooling and power. Finally, growing green is a campus imperative leading to potential operating savings through virtualization, data center optimization, and new greener strategies. Board audit committees and senior management are going to hold technology managers accountable for robust data center operations in a highly constrained budget environment.
I don't know about you but my holiday gift wish list includes an extra bottle of Tylenol 3, a Teflon flak jacket, and a hope that structured innovation remains part of the campus IT portfolio. Against multiple pressures, focus on structured innovation remains our best hope of remaining central to our campuses’ strategic missions and activities.
Lev S. Gonick is vice president for information technology services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. He blogs about technology at Bytes From Lev, where a version of this essay first appeared.
As on a plane, in cyberspace there is little room to maneuver when split-second decisions must be made. Fasten your seatbelt, breathe deeply, and don’t alarm others. I relearn this lesson whenever I log on.
At a college where I teach freshman English, we had a rousing discussion by email about a new textbook option. The finalists included a traditional reader with text-heavy articles, the kind of book that was a staple of freshman English in the past. A young upstart was a serious contender, aiming to teach literacy with new media: email, listservs, blogs, chats, wikis, and other terms that formerly were random Scrabble tiles.
We are a flexible department. After our flurry of emails and rush copies ordered, the new text won.
A feeling of serenity enveloped me when I handled the book. It had dark type on durable paper, not interrupted with charts or graphics. Some research suggests that traditional, slow reading is at risk, and with more than 50 percent of my students in one class saying that they would not be upset if the library vanished tomorrow, I'd better keep up with the trends. So, I will continue to fly in cyberspace, with a book at my side. I need all the help I can get. Let me tell you why.
I was imprinted early with fear of technology. One day, as a first grader, I walked home for lunch and found that my mother, a part-time bookkeeper, had borrowed the adding machine from work. In a moment of sheer abandon (attempting to play “Chopsticks” or positioning my own exact age?) I simultaneously pressed the “6” and the “7.”
No prodding or crying would loosen the stuck keys. The trauma of a winding cab ride downtown (we didn’t drive), the repairman’s scowl, the sharp tools, the gobs of smelly, lubricant: all to undo the consequences of spontaneity. I have never lost the fear of pushing the wrong button.
On the other hand, my fingers can fly. My mother insisted that my sisters and I learn to type at an early age. But flying at 80, even 100 words a minute doesn’t protect you from those whose fingers fly back. Not long after getting a simple email device, I joined a spiritual listserv. My then 7-year-old son and I stared at the green message light as if it indicated life on another planet. The first post was from someone overseas describing her loneliness on her spiritual path. A responder from another country offered support and counsel. My mind embraced a caring, global community.
Each morning at breakfast I reviewed geography on my son’s plastic placemat of the world. Reading posts from remote places on the listserv, my lofty aspirations (delusions of grandeur?) took flight. Soon I was making friends in cyberspace. Or so I thought.
My enthusiasm was too obvious and I was offered a spot on the list management team. Keep an eye out for offensive posts, escalating conflicts, or violations of Netiquette. Simple. Having a contemplative bent, and enjoying the idea of pacing imaginary corridors of an electronic monastery day and night, I accepted.
My first panic attack was when a member had an onscreen outburst, objecting to my writing in the third person about the need for civility. He had taken a boilerplate reminder personally. Bingo! He threatened sanctions, such as going to the board of this organization. He threatened to leave the listserv and seek a better forum for free speech.
Rather than bouncing delightedly in cyberspace, some people wear boots or stilettos, eager to kick the gossamer net of human relations. Around this time a friend told me that he signed off another listserv -- on meditation -- because it was so contentious.
Head in the Clouds
It is good to Google oneself now and then. The phrase calls to mind something that is not physically possible, to tickle one’s self. (I know it’s impossible. I’ve Googled it.) A teacher who’s always learning, I heard of a site that allows students to “rate” professors. I checked it, saw nothing, exhaled in relief. And then, I visited the site again to find a tangle of typos and judgments. Some students saw me as too easy … too hard … too nice … even “cracked out.” Ignorance was bliss.
A nightmare? You decide. A well-meaning contact wrote an entry for me in Wikipedia and proudly sent it to me, thinking I would be pleased. Instead, I was shocked, tried not to hyperventilate. Uncertain what to do, I waited.
A few weeks later, I did the unthinkable again -- I Googled myself -- to find that details had been added. Panicked, I began to whittle the entry down. I considered deleting it all, leaving only my name. A few hours later, a red and black message hovered above my bio, like a telegram announcing a death. A discussion was underway to boot my bio. Destined for the void, I found myself reciting Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”
As in ancient times one might have consulted the Oracle of Delphi, I Googled “notability and Wikipedia." I found that a Slate columnist, Timothy Noah, described a proposed deletion of his own bio. In his case, readers rallied, generating a discussion that (if transferred to paper) would span a short runway. The debate on me was limited to one small, folded tissue, the type in a travel pack. I expected it would soon blow away. It has; I am gone.
One Last Bump
I have been resuscitated on something called “Wikibin.” Perhaps, just as birds search for bits of ribbon or twine for their nests, a search engine saw something colorful in my profile.
Or maybe, as my now-teenager put it: “Mom, it’s as if you’re in the dust bin.”
Was my unsuccessful attempt to unjam 6 and 7 on the adding machine prophetic?
Is technology in anyone’s control?
Wherever we go, there we aren’t. Or are we?
Maria Shine Stewart is a freelance writer in Cleveland who also teaches English. She has taught writing for 20 years at public and private universities throughout northeast Ohio.