I’ve picked up a new podcast I dig: Big Ideas from TV Ontario. It bills itself as the only television program in North America dedicated to the art of the lecture. The current episode is “No Educator Left Behind” by Mark Federman. It’s decidedly worth a listen.
Part of Federman’s talk gives a very brief history of media, including how the first mass media was media for Catholic Mass. Media for Mass led to media for the masses. He goes from their to Gutenberg’s press through a series of steps to bring us to the Internet.
A key point was the evolution of the movement of people and ideas. Reframing his ideas got me thinking that the next societal revolution may be moving interactive facsimiles of ourselves around the world. If that’s right, the consequences for how we live our lives and how we learn are profound.
And I think it needs to be right.
I’ve pondered for a long time how folks who think of themselves as the most scientifically literate in the world justify their typically huge ecological footprints. An experience at the year’s Geological Society of America annual conference highlighted the issue for me. It was in Houston in October. The temperatures were in the high 80s. Jim Hansen, the eminent climate researcher, was a keynote speaker. The auditorium was filled with scientists who had flown from all over the world to participate in this meeting. The auditorium was also probably about 65 degrees F.
Hansen’s legacy can probably justifiy his world travel. That is, his work helps us understand better what to do because it is both well done and widely known. For most of the other thousands of people at this meeting (myself definitely included), I have to wonder about the balance of costs and benefits. I like to think my work is about helping to build understanding of the social and natural world so that we can live purposeful, useful lives that make the world a better place.
Fundamental to that, I strongly believe, is using less stuff and especially burning less stuff. If we’re routinely hopping on jets that burn scores of tons of fuel to get us to our professional meetings to work in hotels and conference centers that are absurdly oppositional to the climate of their region, are we offsetting that by giving and going to presentations and chatting with our colleagues in the bar?
So, how does that relate to the title of this post? Well, conferences really are often great places for professional development. You get to talk with the people in the world who are experts in your field and that likely makes you better in your field. But I think the cost is too high. It’s not sustainable.
As technologies like Second Life, iChat, and Skype mature, we become able to interact with our colleagues at a distance. With Skype, iChat and and other sorts of conferencing software you can, right now, host conference sessions and do them very well. The most valued things that go on at conferences is often the hallway and cocktail lounge one on one and small group interactions. Second Life can simulate that reasonably well and gets better at it all the time.
If we think about how the economy has evolved, the winners have typically been those who can move things that people care about. Moving agriculture products to market; moving materials to and from manufacturing facilities; moving people to wherever it is they wish to go and moving ideas about has driven much productivity in our history. We moved from moving people and things as key in the last century to moving information in the new millenium.
Now we’re on the cusp of being able to move representatives of ourselves to anywhere in the world (with highspeed Internet access) and to control the actions of those representatives as they interact with people and their facsimiles. Now, that’s not energy neutral. Server farms are huge energy consumers, but sending those virtual representatives around the world surely takes far, far less energy than moving the real people around.
So, buy some stock in Second Life… and think about what it means for how people learn and teach in a time when our students have always had Google and IM at their disposal.