Monday, July 18, 2005

Technobiography

My first experiences were with technology as a creative device. I was excited as a child by computers in the same way that I was excited by woodworking.
[Note: there are a lot of good analogies here! A rough wooden table and a rough website have much in common -- powerful functionality given the time and skill input. A smooth website and a smooth carving are similar: limited functionality, but well-done, comfortable to handle, and so on]

I learned about computers largely from my father, who is not much of a computer person, but dealt with them (and their powerful future capabilities) in his work as a cartographer. I met with a local librarian at his suggestion and learned to use Gopher, and we spent considerable time and money trying to get our old Performa onto the World Wide Web. I was exhilarated to write very simple programs in QBASIC that could handle multiplication and division, and then calculator programs to do my algebra. But I was always learning from others here -- the basics of one language or another, one factoid or another about how the internet works underneath, or how computers work, and so on.

...

Technology is the unexploited, today. This is, of course, the view of any evangelist about any field, concept, etc., but technology is mine, given my personal, extensive background. I spend my time thinking about how technology could and should be used, but isn't, or isn't well -- whether it's at Amherst College with a disturbingly small computer science department, deployment of technology in the curriculum, or respect for computers in the student body, or in the broader world, where my granddad has very significant trouble using a web browser, despite being a skilled electrician. I think something many in our field have come across recently is that technology has advanced to a point now that it is very developed (functionality has been increasing at a breakneck pace for decades now) but that the ease of use has not increased at the same time.

And what about me personally?
As I've gotten better at this computer stuff, and as I've faced a community of those inexperienced, wary or outright hostile with regard to computers, I've had to deal with a different set of issues than learning the latest language, or adding capabilities to my technical skillset. I am constantly forced to defend technology to its opponents, and attempt to improve technology where their complaints are valid.

I've worked two summers now with the Curricular Computing section of the IT department at Amherst College. This group hires students over the summer to implement technology projects for any faculty that are at all interested. This is largely about user-friendliness, because if the faculty members, almost never with any computing training, can't use the software and show it to their students, it won't actually be used in practice. And another large part of this is maintenance and documentation -- interns spend much of their time converting existing websites (often created by past summer interns) to more easily maintainable versions -- computer-savvy interns commonly implement interesting designs and then graduate, leaving faculty members in trouble.

I would say that that change is parallel between my biography and that of computer technology in general. Perhaps I am just overly self-aware, but I think many in the field are thinking about it -- about how all of this technological capability and extraordinary power can be harnessed. One would think that technology itself would make this easier.

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