InfoStructure seminar series to challenge intersections between technology and society
Imagine the success of the iPhone without millions of busy people who demand information on the run. Or consider the viability of MySpace without the legion of teens, like, dying to be connected to their social network with one click.
Neither would exist without the other. But too often, information technology is discussed as though it were independent of society, a chasm that graduate students at the University of Illinois are hoping to bridge through a new educational initiative.
“InfoStructure: Intersections Between Social and Technological Systems” will showcase leading scholars in a monthly seminar series beginning Oct. 12 and continuing through spring of 2010. In addition, “InfoStructure” will offer a small-group forum following each lecture and a reading group with books selected by the speakers.
“Technology is becoming increasingly pervasive, but too often we think of it as set apart from society,” said Matt Crain, a doctoral candidate in communications who is co-organizing the program. “We want to emphasize that technology shapes, but is also shaped by existing social relations.”
The thought divide is in part the result of a real divide between the humanists who have their finger on society’s pulse and the engineers who develop the technology. Even on university campuses, where cross-disciplinary work is nourished, the two rarely talk.
“C.P. Snow famously argued in the 1950s that we had created ‘two cultures’ that were mutually incomprehensible,” said Christian Sandvig, an advisor to the group and a researcher in the Coordinated Science Laboratory. “Snow hoped mutual education would bridge the gulf. It’s fifty years later and we are still working out how to do it.”
Crain, along with co-organizers Aimee Rickman and Shinjoung Yeo, hope the series facilitates discussion between the groups. The payoff could be technology that better suits the needs and desires of society, as well as new tools for policymakers to make more informed decisions about technology infostructure and policy.
“For example, the idea of sending one laptop to every child in Africa was a noble one,” said Yeo, a doctoral candidate in library and information science. “But even though technology could be a tool to solve some of Africa’s problems, there are so many barriers that it doesn’t really work.”
The list of topics to be covered ranges widely across activities touched by information technology, including sound processing, ubiquitous media, entrepreneurship, cloud computing, intellectual property, virtual worlds, and robotics. The reading group includes members from the Coordinated Science Laboratory, Communication, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Library and Information Science.
Illinois alum Jonathan Sterne will launch the series with a lecture on mp3s that underscores the need for the two groups to connect. The mp3 was specifically designed to be transportable, a characteristic that later harmed the record companies who helped fund the development of the technology.
“Had the business people and the technical people been communicating better, they may have been able to anticipate the copyright issues that would later ensue, or perhaps rethink unsuccessful business models based on locking down content,” Crain said. “We hope to encourage people to start thinking about information technology from a broader perspective.”
All events will be held in the Coordinated Science Laboratory. Spring dates and speakers will be announced at a later date.
Monday, October 12 - Jonathan Sterne
12:30pm public lecture – CSL B02 auditorium
1:45pm small group discussion – CSL 301
Monday, November 9 - Mark Deuze
12:30pm public lecture - CSL B02 auditorium
1:45pm small group discussion opportunity – CSL 301
Tuesday, December 1 - Anita Chan
12:30pm “brown bag” lecture and Q&A - CSL 301
For more information, or to sign up for the reading group, please visit http://go.illinois.edu/infostructure.