Thursday, April 06, 2017

A Bridge Too Far

In Atlanta last week a fire destroyed a major highway bridge right on my, and so many other's, commutes. I've been playing with different strategies, like coming in later or even working at home when I can, not so easy when a department chair. I expect at Georgia Tech, just South of the damaged highway, we'll see less people around for the next ten weeks or so.

Even before the bridge collapse faculty don't all come in every day. In the Chronicle last month Deborah Fitzgerald laments the empty hallways she sees in her department. Hallways became a victim of technology, particularly the Internet. We mostly communicate electronically, can access our files and academic papers on our laptops and iPads just as easily in a coffeehouse as in our office. If you use your mobile phone as your primary number the person calling you won't even know if you are in the office. The only reason to come into the office is to teach or to meet other people.

Of course meeting other people is a very good reason. Not only scheduled meeting with students but the random meeting with another colleague that turns into a research project. The times I've walked into a student's office with a crazy idea, or needed a combinatorial theorem from one of the local experts. As we even move our meetings to video conferences, we really start to lose those spontaneous connections that come from random conversations. Soon the technology may get so good that our online meetings and courses will become a better experience than meeting in person. What will happen to the universities then?


  1. ----------------
    Lance wonders "When technology [gets] so good that our online meetings and courses become a better experience than meeting in person, what will happen to universities?"

    Lol … there's an app for that!

    Meaning that the enduring foundation and organizing enterprise of academia, namely peer-reviewed journals, will be supplanted by apps.

    As a concrete example, last month's launch by Google (and other major corporations) of Distill (weblog announcementhere, Distill home page here)

    From the Distill prospectus:
    — — — — —
    "Science isn't just about discovering new results. It’s also about human understanding. Scientists need to develop notations, analogies, visualizations, and explanations of ideas. This human dimension of science isn't a minor side project. It's deeply tied to the heart of science."

    "That’s why, in collaboration with OpenAI, DeepMind, YC Research, and others, we’re excited to announce the launch of Distill, a new open science journal and ecosystem supporting human understanding of machine learning. Distill is an independent organization, dedicated to fostering a new segment of the research community."
    — — — — —

    Placebomantically speaking, Distill is evolving itself as a machine-learning "ecosystem" (their word for it), two functions of which (by no means the only functions) are to (1) peer-review and archivally preserve "works" that include (but are not limited to) publications, and to (2) "foster" young people in learning how to create/share machine-learning STEAM-works.

    There are few evident bounds on the domain and range of 21st century placebomantic enterprises like Distill, are there?

    The lack of bounds is what attracts growth-oriented enterprises like Google, whose business is to provide (via apps) as many traditionally university-based services as they can. There is plenty of academic territory that is ripe for app-colonization.

  2. Students still want to come to brick and mortar universities but with video recording of lecture classes becoming more of the norm, since it obviates their need to wake up to come to class.

  3. Dear Lance,

    How many miles from work do you live? Is there really no public transportation that you can take in Atlanta? Can you bike/walk to work?

    1. I'm about ten miles--a very long bike ride. I've been taking the MARTA train but it does more than double my pre-bridge collapse travel time.

  4. I cannot understand "and so many others, commutes". Was "others'" meant?

    1. I meant other commuters. I'm hardly the only affected by the bridge collapse.