To Praise Technology But Not Worship It

The liberal arts and the shape of tomorrow's academy

Steven Kraftchick

Twenty-five years ago, I took five hundred dollars—the extent of my savings—and made a foray into the stock market. As a freshly minted graduate who had used a Kaypro 10 portable (better “luggable,” as it weighed 26 pounds) computer to write my dissertation, I was sure that personal computing was the wave of the future. Using my critical research skills, I narrowed my choices to two companies: Kaypro and Apple. 

Kaypro had been building electronic devices since 1952 and it was the fifth largest computer manufacturer in the world. Apple was barely ten years old. It had just ousted Steve Jobs, replacing him with a marketing wizard from Pepsi who knew almost nothing about computer technology. All the signs pointed to Kaypro, so, with full confidence in my capacity to see the future of technology, I invested in Kaypro. It would rule the campuses of America, and I would be touted as a visionary and be wealthy to boot! 

In fewer than three years the company was in chapter 11. By 1992 my stock was worthless. Let’s not talk about what those fifty shares of Apple stock would be worth today. Be assured, the irony of my writing this essay on a MacBook Pro is pain enough. 

Despite my evident lack of prophetic bona fides and because the future is upon us, I want to offer some predictions about the Emory of the future. Primarily, I wish to suggest two ways of thinking about technology and thus, two means of conceiving of a university. The first considers technology as the tools and techniques we use to negotiate the physical world. The second conception refers not to the tools, but to the worldviews that enable us to construct and use those tools. Technology in this manner is not obvious, but it may be more pertinent to our future as a university, because this conception has implications for achieving the university’s mission and goals.

Viewed as tools and techniques, technology is the extension and enhancement of human capacities. Just as hammers and pens extend what our hands can do, microscopes what our eyes can do, and stethoscopes what our ears can do, digital technology extends what our minds can do to collect, sort, and disperse data at speeds and distances heretofore unimaginable. In other words, technology blurs the boundaries that historically have defined the structures and placements of universities.

Universities were, and still are, repositories of knowledge—quite literally physical locations for books, artifacts, and lab equipment, where a cadre of people can create, criticize, and communicate collective knowledge. In this respect, a university’s actual physical spaces and buildings are reflections of, and limited by, the technologies available to it. As our technologies of storage and communication change, the boundaries between brick and mortar and virtual spaces will be blurred, and the physical and social structures of the university will change. Emory cannot but ask itself what this means for its libraries and laboratories.

A similar set of questions will arise for dormitories and classroom spaces. Consider that only a bit over twenty years ago the World Wide Web was developed for the scientists at CERN. In 1995 only 0.5 percent of the world’s population used the web. As of December 2011, 25 percent of the world’s population use it routinely. Of those users, 44 percent live in Asia, 22 percent in Europe, and 10 percent in Latin America. Taking this into account, where will Emory’s students dwell? Who will our faculty be, and how will we partner with other institutions in collaborative research, teaching, and, perhaps even granting degrees? 

Current digital technology already allows us to “flip the classroom.” As it produces more intuitive forms of communication, we will find new ways to teach. For instance, at Candler we are experimenting with different forms of asynchronous teaching. In some classes we are providing lectures online, freeing our class time for discussion about the lecture. In other classes, we are using open source software to post class projects, create discussion groups, and allow students (and faculty) to create virtual discussions. Again, this frees our class time for other possibilities and allows us to extend our conversations beyond “when a class meets.” I rather doubt that face-to-face instruction will cease, nor do I think that it should, but these new forms will become more natural to us, and when they do, we will need to reconceive where our students can live, what types and sizes of classrooms we need, and how we will use our resources for non-classroom interaction spaces. 

There are challenges involved with all of this. Many can be overcome, and others can be stimuli for new solutions. The trick is to remember that the university of tomorrow will not be based on the technology in front of us today, but that which will be created in the next five to ten years. 

The growth of Internet usage is astonishing, but it is more than surpassed by the rate at which the world is producing and storing data each day. Computational scientists calculate that the total amount of the world’s stored data is 600 billion gigabytes (2 gigabytes will store approximately 20 yards of books on a shelf) or the equivalent of 2.4 billion standard-sized hard drives. These astronomical figures suggest that a major task for universities will not only be to amass and dispense information, but also to equip students with the intellectual tools to manage it. Indeed, the capacity to engage critically this enormous amount of information will determine the success or failure of our students in the modern world.

To attain the critical distance this requires, the university must cultivate habits and demeanors that encourage all of us to rediscover the “art of silence.” We must create forms for detachment from technology as part of the university’s expectations for students, faculty, and staff. Indeed, this may be what distinguishes a university from other institutions. 

These reflective capacities are critical because the same technology that blurs institutional boundaries also blurs our sense of the human being’s boundaries. We already incorporate the mechanical with the human through devices like pacemakers, stents, sensory aids, and artificial joints. One cannot help but wonder what this will look like when forms of artificial intelligence are made complements to the human ones. Our notions of the human are destined to be challenged, and the university must be ready to engage this fundamental question.

To enable us to do so, the university will have to redouble its efforts to keep essential humanistic endeavors at the forefront of its reflections. This brings me to the second conception of technology, as a mode of discernment. Ultimately, universities have always been about understanding ourselves as human beings in relationship to other human beings, to our environments—social and natural—and with our selves. The technological blurring of the physical and mental boundaries of the human compels us to ensure that the study of the human as a relational being remains at the core of the entire university’s work. 

At the end of a lucid and thoughtful treatment of Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, Richard Rojcewicz asks how are we to live in a technological age and yet not fall victim to the technological outlook? How can we become free of imposition? Should we oppose technology, curse it, and attempt to smash it, like the Luddites? Should we perhaps offer passive resistance, benign neglect? Or should we fully enter into the technological world and attempt to reform it from within?” Rojcewicz does not recommend any of these approaches, but, following Heidegger, he suggests instead that we begin thinking. Not thinking as calculation, but as contemplation, by which he means “attending to what is closest, that which, ‘heeds the meaning of things’ and not just the things as objects.” Thinking as contemplation enables us “to put technology into perspective, to relativize technological things . . . , which amounts to detachment from them . . . to putting them in their place . . . understood in the sense of demoting them, dismissing them from their highest place. But it also means to put technological things in their proper place; i.e., it involves the recognition that they do have a legitimate place.”

In other words, the future of the university is not an either-or with regard to technologies definitions, but a relationship between them. The use of technology helps us comprehend most fully what we are, not because technology defines the human, but because the human must define technology. Our pursuits in understanding the human being most fully will enable us to determine how we want technology as a tool to function at our university. This is the blend I predict Emory will seek in the coming decades: an appreciation of technology not simply because of its instrumental value, but for what it discloses about us as human beings, an appreciation that will enable Emory to praise technology, but not worship it, and in so doing allow Emory to embody its highest goals.