Noted tech journalist to help bridge gap between engineers, technology users
When Julian Dibbell wrote the acclaimed 1993 article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” a chasm already existed between those who built technology and those who used it. The story detailed a virtual rape in an online gaming community, LambdaMOO, which left the players seething and the community’s creators reeling and uncertain how to respond.
Nearly two decades later, Dibbell still sees a tension between users and developers. And he’s hoping that students and faculty at the University of Illinois can help tackle the problem.
Dibbell joined the Illinois faculty this spring as the George A. Miller Visiting Professor in the College of Media and the Center for Advanced Study. In addition, he is a guest faculty member of the Coordinated Science Laboratory and is teaching two courses, ENG 498 "Tech Journalism in a Wired Era" and MS 391 / INFO 390 "Digital Media and Virtual Worlds.”
But he’s hoping to learn as much wisdom as he imparts.
“I’m very interested in how engineering curriculum can be reformatted so that these kinds of questions about human relationships and the way they are shaped by technology are not an afterthought in engineering,” Dibbell said. “It gets folded into the curriculum from the start.”
He believes that writing could be a useful tool in jumpstarting the process and has incorporated it into ENG 498. By writing for a non-technical audience, engineering students must put themselves in the minds of those who aren’t as close to technology.
For Dibbell, who graduated from Yale before the birth of the Internet, writing has unlocked new opportunities of his own. He became a pop music critic with the dream of knocking down the walls of high culture and writing about hip hop and rock in the manner he had read about Shakespeare and Chaucer. Along the way, he purchased a modem to file stories remotely. He discovered bulletin boards and a new career as a technology journalist.
“I thought that this was what a really democratic culture might look like where everyone can publish,” he said. “And it’s just been one story after another since.”
The concepts of democracy and freedom, and how they are often at war with mercenariness and intellectual property issues, have been and continue to be a frequent theme in his articles.
In China, he wrote about the sweatshop conditions of a warehouse where youth are paid 25 cents an hour to play video games to earn virtual coins and points, which their employers sell to Western players at a huge profit. He’s also written about investors with connections in Dubai who believed online gold-backed currency was the next big thing and is currently working on a piece for the New York Times Magazine about the Swedish Pirate Party, whose platform is based on the freedom of intellectual property.
Even in the U.S. -- perhaps especially in the U.S. -- these issues surface in nearly every arena. The social network Facebook, for example, collects social data on your friends and friends of friends – the paradox being that you don’t own the information, Facebook does.
Dibbell says it is ironic that a technology as non-proprietary as the Internet has given way to applications managed by private corporations. He’s hoping that his time at Illinois will illuminate potential answers to creating a more open-source virtual world.
“If someone has his ear to the ground for any kind of solutions, I’m ready to publicize them,” he said.