September 2008 Archives

What is IST, exactly?

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IST is interesting in that it seems to have started out as a perception of a need or gap, rather than as an extension of an exiting program in Comp Sci or Library Science. I'd like to think that is a good thing, that we didn't start as something else and then become what we are trying to be. We didn't come into the iSchool thing with much bagage; we are something novel. Of course, the downside may be a bit of a challenge at times explaining who we are supposed to be.

I spent 3 years as an undergrad in IST, so my view might be a bit different from that of a 'new' grad student. But the story I heard as an undergrad was that the (undergraduate) program was meant to address an unfilled need in industry for people who could understand more than just technology, for people that could understand the importance of people and information in the technology mix. As an undergrad, it seemed like this meant that most people were destined for the corporate world. And it seems that most IST undergards did very well if that was there goal. But I was focused on this whole other part of IST that seemed a bit less practical, a bit more focused on social or philosophical issues realated to technology. The thread was there so I followed it, but I often felt like I was a bit out of step with my seemingly more pragmatic peers.

IST is organizanized around centers rather than departments, and that is a large part of its appeal for me. If I had to pick a department, I don't think I would be nearly as interested in IST. And my observation has been that there us a great deal of interaction across centers, where faculty from seperate disciplines are working together on research that niether would do as well alone. Whether there could or should be more intereaction across centers and faculty is another question, but it seems common enough so far in my experience.

Right now, I can see myself somewhere between the Center for HCI and the Center for the Information Society. And I ultimately don't see them as seperate things, there is a lot of overlap there and, ideally, I would pull elelents from both of those Centers together to be the kind of reasearcher that I want to be. If they were distinct departments, I think that I would feel a little differently. The message I have gotten from several faculty is that we (as grad students) should be understanding the 'big picture' of IST better than they do, each coming form their own academic background, that we (as grad students) are to be a synthesis of some sort that embodies what IST is. Perhaps this is a bit idealisrtic. But IST stands out to me as a place you could explore almost anything related to techology and find faculty to guide your interest, while also getting a bigger picture than just that particular interest.

"So, do you guys study the Internet, or what?"

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I'm attending an iSchool, though a few years ago I had no idea what that meant. What seems to make the iSchools movement different from other disciplines is that it arose in response to a new challenge, based on the insight that no existing discipline completely addressed the phenomenon of the Information Age. It is different in that its approach is interdisciplinary (my chosen definition: "A curriculum organization that cuts across subject-matter lines to focus upon comprehensive life problems or broad-based areas of study that bring together the various segments of the curriculum into meaningful association." - found here ) and takes its area of study to be information. Other disciplines seem to have long histories and established programs which are usually well known. It is different than other disciplines in that it still defining itself as a science. It includes many established sciences like computer science, psychology, and sociology. But as a science and discipline in itself, it seems to be evolving and not-yet-final - in a good way.

One conception that seems common to the iSchools is the focus on the triangle of information-technology-people. In order to address the phenomenon of the Information Age, all three sides of the triangle need to be included. Other disciplines seem to focus on one of the three sides, or two of the three sides - understanding how people use technology form a sociological perspective, for example. While we wouldn't say the sociologist is wrong, in an iSchool we might say that there is another way to look at, that there might be more to gain from an interdisciplinary understanding of all three sides of the triangle.That we bring something unique and new and valuable to what we study.

With information as our area of study, some iSchools emerged out of the tradition of Library Science, which is focused on themes like classification, organization, and searching of physical information sources. It seems natural that as information moves toward digital forms that they would extend their study to digital information. Other iSchools seem to have developed out of Computer Science or Business Schools, and while they all likely have their own flavor, they all seem to have moved toward the same conceptual triangle as their common theme.

My own choice of an iSchool was something of an accident of circumstance. I moved near Penn State to get away from the Philadelphia suburbs, with the thought of returning to college as something far in the back of my mind. When I did decide to return to school, I had a conversation with an advisor about my interest in "something with technology" and, since I didn't think I wanted to be programmer, she suggested IST. I was interested from my first class (IST 110) and thought there was something unique here. But I also thought that I was going to get in, get a B.S., and get out - to start a job that paid well. But over the three years of my undergraduate classes, I realized I wasn't that excited by some of the jobs that my fellow undergraduates were getting. Most of them were very good jobs in the usual sense, but none of them quite fit the passion I had for the things that made IST unique, that made it an iSchool rather than a Business school or a Computer Science school. For me, it is the interdisciplinary approach to a compelling set of issues raised by our 'Information Age' world that brought me to this graduate school. And though I have moments of doubt, there really isn't anything else that I can imagine doing right now that could be more interesting.

Here's an interesting thought:

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"Humans are being trapped in a high-tech cycle that is freezing their minds away from living in the moment, looking at life and taking in what's around them," writes Celente. "While technology has radically altered the externals of life, it has done nothing demonstrable to enhance the internals: moral, emotional, philosophical and spiritual values."

- Taken from "Technoslave" essay posted at, which was referenced by an essay on "How cell phones hurt communities".

Having a definite Buddhist influence in my thinking, this seems to me to be a fairly obvious observation. But it isn't just technology, it seems like it is our whole consumer/entertainment culture that seems to support us in avoiding ourselves and each other. And while I usually avoid SMS and IM, I am as caught up in my technology use as anyone. I sometimes feel like a wanna-be Luddite who is studying technology. But what else can we do? The world has gone down a certain path.

Cool new tool for disaster relief!

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UNICEF has released information on a cool new communication tool for use in disaster relief. It provides WiFi, SMS, and FM radio for use in the field, provides a satellite uplink to connect to the rest of the world, and runs off of solar power or a car batteries. In situations where infrastructure is destroyed or non-existent, it seems to fill a need that nobody has really addressed. The best part is that it uses off-the-shelf components and open source software so any organization could build one and customize it to fit their own needs without need of any licensing. It's exciting to see these kinds of non-proprietary technology efforts for humanitarian relief. I don't know when the plans/software will be released, but I'm hoping that maybe we can put one together as part of our research on NGO/military coordination. Full story from UNICEF here.

UNICEF video on the "Bee" System:

My academic motivations . .

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I was first attracted to academia many years ago. On my first trip through college, I was a philosophy major. It's the kind of area that seems to only have a future if you have a PhD and I went into the major assuming that would be my path. But I slowly became disillusioned with academic philosophy. Authors like  Heidegger and Foucault  made a strong impression on my thinking and I was interested in real world applications of those kinds of ideas, but academic philosophy didn't seem to be about that, at least not in a way that I could see then. I never finished that philosophy degree and turned to the world of work for lack of a better plan. Fast forward many years and, tired of the kinds of work I had been doing, I returned to school to pursue a degree in "technology". I thought this was a purely practical choice; I could make use of some long ago earned credits and get a degree in a field that seemed to be in demand and be more gainfully employed in just a couple of years. But it didn't take long to catch the academic bug again.

 It's become clear that the Internet could change everything. Maybe it already has. Authors like Lawrence Lessig,  who frequently talks  about the need for our legal framework for IP to change to address this new digital reality, seem to be tremendously important if we actually want to fully embrace the potential of this new tool. The potential for the technology like Bit Torrent to level the playing field in terms of distribution has made me hopeful that we can broaden the conversation that is our culture beyond established commercial media sources. Rather than just consumers of culture, we can be participants and commentators in this new media. This already seems to be happening but established media still owns a lot of eyeballs on the Web and, as organizations like Free Press point out, the fight for the future of the Web is not over. And this goes beyond just the issue of content; I think it's also about the future of our democracy. Though I can't say this will be an area of my own research, it's certainly one of my motivations for earning a PhD - why go into a gun fight armed only with a knife?

Beyond the themes of media and democracy, I'm motivated by an interest in the theme of collaboration made possible by technology. The Internet has already made new kinds of long-distance collaboration possible. But it seems that most of this has been studied in the context of the business world. Can we use ICTs to support more effective humanitarian relief for international NGOs? or to support the work of local non-profits? It seems like there is no lack of effort to exploit the commercial potential of the web; what about its potential in areas of human value that aren't measured well in dollars? We seem to have no lack of important problems to address. And it seems that most of them will require increasing levels of cooperation, coordination, and collaboration to solve.

And beyond any particular technology area, I'm motivated by a desire to write and to teach for a living. There are many authors and teachers who had a huge influence on my life, and it has always seemed appropriate to me to work in the world of ideas and their application in the real world  as the way to 'pass it forward'. And honestly, nothing else really seems nearly as interesting as a way to spend my remaining working years. I'm getting too old to do anything that I don't love everyday.

So who am I?

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So who am I? I am an older-than-I-look graduate student in the College of Information Science and Technology at Penn State University. I was born and raised in northeast Pennsylvania, and though I have tried living a few other places on the east coast of the US, semi-rural PA seems like where I am most comfortable. I currently live in Pleasant Gap (about 10 minutes from downtown State College) with my wife and best friend, Kim. Though we have been together for a few years, we were finally married in August '08 on Grand Cayman Island. There are a few pictures of the event on our wedding planner's blog. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place with a beautiful woman!

So that's some obligatory biographical information. What else would I want you to know about me? I love a lot of music, but I don't like a lot of what gets played on most radio stations. I miss the days before 'alternative' became its own musical genre and I still think Husker Du is the world's greatest band. I've been hooked on NPR since the late eighties and it only gets worse as they offer more ways to get a fix. I read a lot of comics, though sophisticated people call them 'graphic novels' now. Most superheroes of my childhood are still around (not that you could miss them in theaters lately ), but comics seem more interesting than ever.  I think the recent death of Captain America is an interesting commentary on the state of the nation after the last eight years.  Wasteland is one of my current favorite comics. I can't wait for the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica to finally air. I remember where I was the moment the first episode of the Simpsons aired and to this day I know where I will be most Sundays at 8 pm. I think great poetry might be more important than most science. And my favorite poet is Robert Bly. I think the status-quo of almost everything is terrible and that we are running out of time to save ourselves before we run out of oil, water, or bees I'm torn between having hope for the future of human beings and kind of hoping the world will end.


Some of the places on the web that I visit daily that might tell you a little more about me:


Digg - social news site where users are the editors


Ars Technica - tech news blog that covers legal/policy issues better than most


AlterNet - national news from a perspective outside the 'mainstream' news media


This Modern World - liberal political blog with a weekly political cartoon


Liberty Meadows - daily comic strip by my favorite comic artist, Frank Cho

And just for fun, me as a cartoon:

Top of Form


Me, not a cartoon.

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Why 'Just an advertisement'?

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A few words about the title of this blog: David Byrne, famous as the front man of the Talking Heads, has had a very interesting solo career since that band's commercial highpoint many years ago. There is a song on his self-titled 1994 album called 'Angels', with the following lines -

I can barely touch my own self
How could I touch someone else?
I am just an advertisement
For a version of myself

'Angels' music video

Those words stuck with me since I first heard them around 1995, and it occurred to me as I pondered this blog project that all our digital identities are literally 'advertisements' for some version of ourselves that we would like others to see. Byrne, showing his Buddhist influence, is talking about intimate relationships, a different context than the online world. But are we really any different in any part of our lives in deciding what we want others to see about us?  I know it is true for me. And now that we can copy/paste, embed, and link to show who we are, is what we show more or less authentic? Isn't my title and this explanation just more of the same 'version' control?

 So here it is, my 'hello world' for the blogosphere. Which version of myself shall I be showing? You'll have to stay tuned.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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