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February 17, 2005

From Bullets to Books to Bytes

Every year, Sun Microsystems hosts a haj to San Francisco. Nearly 500 people from 40+ countries gather for Sun's worldwide education and research conference exploring the intersection of technology, innovation, and education.

In a day full of insights and stories, the highlight was Queen Noor of Jordan's conversation with John Gage, Sun's Chief Researcher. Her Majesty is not a technologist. That's ok, Sun employee #1, Andy Bechtolsheim filled the assembled with benchmark speeds of Sun's new Opteron collaboration with AMD. Her Majesty is not software whiz. That's ok too. Sun EVP for Software John Loiacono provided a whirlwind tour of all things software focusing on openSolaris. Her Majesty does not run a large and complex institution. President Bob Dynes of the University of California and Minister Lyle Oberg of the Province of Alberta shared institutional perspectives on technology, innovation, and education. Her Majesty is not a film maker. Milton Chen from The George Lucas Education Foundation showed up and shared a documentary film on a Portland Oregon technology-rich emersion school in Japanese language and culture helping me to imagine a slightly less xenophobic American education world.

What Queen Noor is or what she represents to her audience is an iconoclast. While her conversation with John Gage, himself a luminary, started with some trepidation, it quickly became clear that Her Majesty has a deep and profound commitment to education and in improving the status of women both in the Muslim and Arab world as well as elsewhere in the so-called developing world. But she is also a messenger. She is on a mission to challenge many of the settled beliefs and institutions both within the Arab and Islamic world and leveraging her unique status as a janus, Queen of an Arab country and an international icon.

In an otherwise inspiring conversation, the tone and context was somewhat unsettling. Or at least that is how I heard it. In my experience, when good people in the West want to understand how they can contribute to "others" we assume a kind of 21st century version of the "white man's burden" bringing enlightenment, education and progress to "others" through information and communication technology (or other forms of goodness). The thesis that moderation will grow in the world of Islam if only we can set of web sites and more generally diffuse moderate values through communication media is problematic in and of itself. However, more important to me, is the notion that the enlightened west alone can export all things good. Let me try and explain.

When asked by John Gage to speak about the source of hope for the future and the possible role of technology, the Queen shared the power of the internet and email to enable young people to render invisible political boundaries and inherited hate and fear. Her own work in this area has been influenced by the work of Seeds of Peace. Seeds is a summer camp based in Maine that brings together young people from zones of conflict. Israeli and Palestinians, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, youth from the former Yugoslavia, from India, Pakistan and Afgahnistan and so forth. In addition to all the regular summer camp experiences, Seeds has developed over more than a decade a remarkable "peace and coexistence studies" curriculum facilitated by an amazing and dedicated staff. The general philosophy of the camp is that 'treaties are negotiated by governments. Peace is made by People.' The Queen is on the Advisory Board of Seeds of Peace.

Back in 1998, I began working with Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach and more closely with his son Michael. I contacted John to learn more about the summer camp and proposed the development and use of a multimedia curriculum to help the many thousands of young people in the Middle East who were not lucky enough to come to Maine for the summer camp to still experience the co-existence curriculum and meet young people from "the other side". With support from our university and a grant from the US Institute for Peace we began to work on a year long project to teach a dozen young persons from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt how to use multimedia tools to tell their personal stories and the Seeds of Peace curriculum. Campus technologists assisted and traveled and worked in the Middle East for nearly a year to help document the "day in the life" of our 12 Seeds campers. The result was an award winning 3 CD Rom set on Seeds of Peace multimedia. To be sure, we need enlightened technology companies like Sun Microsysems and its visionary leaders to enable many many more such opportunities to realize the full potential of information and communication technology.

But our vision then and now is that the Seeds of Peace and the role of technologies like multimedia and massive online player games (that we created back in the late 90s) are actually every bit as important for young people in American cities as it is for youth in countries that we consider "in conflict". American's inner cities are war zones. Infant mortality, school drop outs, domestic violence and abuse, gangs, drugs, and hopelessness are every bit as real in our cities as CNN Headline news would have us understand are the realities of life in Africa, the Middle East or other war torn and ravaged parts of the world. The real value of a Seeds of Peace effort and the real opportunity for technology visionaries like John Gage is to help us reframe the conversation. The Seeds of Peace co-existence curriculum is making a difference. As Queen Noor indicated, graduates of the program are now emerging into positions of authority and power and that gives her hope. What will it take for us in the U.S. to import the Seeds of Peace curriculum into our own inner cities? What opportunities can we enable to have kids in gangs in our inner cities on the road to near sure destruction understand that if reconciliation can be achieved by young people in parts of the world where people have been killing each other for generations, that there is hope and possibility for our inner cities. Can we use the same technology of multimedia, the internet and gaming to let our inner city youth experience the Seeds of Peace co-existence way? Can we even imagine using the technology to have young people in the Middle East or Central Asia teach our inner city youth about hope. That is the kind of reframing that we need. Lest we forget the network is designed to be fully bi-directional. If we are to take Queen's Noors insights on the value of Islam to humanity we must be very careful to not place that important point into the database under "17th century history" and relegate to an historical footnote. If we are to really leverage the network we need to be ready to take seriously the radical notion of the purpose of higher education and that is to contest our assumptions and received truths. That is our own call to be as iconoclastic as Her Majesty.

Sun's announcement that is investing in Jordan's Yarmuk university is enormously impressive. What will be even more impressive is when graduate students in Jordan can routinely use the network and application services to help social work students in Cleveland (and elsewhere) understand how using technology can address issues of poverty alleviation, creating hope, and a since of a common future.

The contours for true partnership is just beginning. Let's not miss the window of opportunity to change the course of history.

Posted by lsg8 at 01:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 16, 2005

Bit Economy Versus Experience Economy and the Future of Information and Communication Technology on Campus

Greg Papadopoulos, Sun Microsystems' Chief Technology Officer is a man with a mission. Yesterday, Greg was the keynote at Sun's 2005 Worldwide Education and Research Conference.

Greg's thesis is that there is an inevitable, ineluctable, economic engine driving a major paradigm shift in the information and communications technology space. At the level of technical architecture Greg sees the network maturing and delivering robust, highly available connectivity catalyzing a change in the way we think about personal computing and the computer. As computing requirements become more like a utility Sun's vision is that just like oil fields with complex oil refinery backend infrastructure allow drivers to pump gas without their own oil wells, just like utility power generators allow us to plug in our toasters without a power grid in our back yards, so too will we move to a model in computing. Sophisticated grid and/or computing infrastructure, driven by concerns around security and reliability and the incessant demands of the market to drive out of costs will inevitably lead to a transformation of the personal computing environment. Sun's next generation stateless thin client solution known as the Sun Ray 170 Ultra Thin Client is a glimpse into the future. At least, according to Greg Papadopoulos. Think Google. According to Greg, Google is a working example of what he has in mind for the entire ICT space. Huge backend infrastructure powered by hundreds of thousands of servers that are essentially invisible to the user, a simple web browser and powerful search software. Why not the desktop and office productivity tools?

Papadopoulos went on to suggest that according to "Greg's Law" the logic of the "Bit" economy, that is, the pounding demand of the market place to drive out costs and reduce the cost per bit of any product or service will lead us to only one conclusion. The cost per bit of maintaining an "outmoded" solution like shrinkwrap software that costs pennies per bit to develop, distribute and consume as opposed to a networked (ala Google) solution which costs a tiny fraction of a penny per bit. What keeps Papadopoulos up at night is figuring out how to take this economic reasoning or what he calls the "Bit Economy" and develop an integrated technology strategy to develop the sophisticated powergird or oil refinery version backend infrastructure to drive this transformation.

In a panel following Greg's keynote on the "future of the digital campus" I tried to point out that the drive to develop a corporate strategy on the back of the bit economy was not only a form of economic reductionism, but more importantly it missed a much more important driver on the University campus and that is the experience economy. I think Sun is coming to a very interesting point in its corporate culture. Think again about Google. Google as a brand and as a product offering is selling an experience to almost every kind of user. No one thinks of Google as a hundreds of thousands of servers and sophisticated software. Sun needs to be very very careful in its corporate strategy because, IMHO, it is on track to becoming the company that says "your experience, powered by Sun bits". It's like the commercial on television "we don't make the products you use, we make them better." If this is indeed Sun's strategy, Sun will continue to become marginalized as a product brand. How many of us know the name of the company that manufactures oil drilling equipment or the materials for the powergrid? Sun needs to be mindful that in the 21st century networked economy, we do not have too many success stories in the "powered" by corporate strategy (Intel, being one very notable exception).

On the University Campus the logic of the bit economy continues to be a hard sell. Whether it is our university presidents our alumni, our students, or faculty colleagues or most of our staff, bits need to work. Period. This does not mean it is easy. To be clear, the technologists need to be able to execute, especially as expectations continue to rise. What is of vital importance on the campus is the experience economy. It's about the experience of integrating visualization tools into learning environments. It is about extending our wireless infrastructures into meaningful mobile learning and playing environments. When we have students and faculty creating learning games (called simulations or otherwise), that is an experience. Interactive video conferencing on demand, now that's an experience. When we enable the build out of immersive virtual reality theaters to allow students and faculty to travel back in time or through the galaxy or fly through the human body, that is the experience economy at play. When we build out social computing infrastructure that fosters collaboration we are on the road to helping the learner (whether student or faculty) transform themselves.

To be sure there is a need for balance in our approach. I would, however maintain that innovation on campus can no longer be characterized by the stuff in the machine room, the electronics in the closet or the fiber in the conduit. Hardware, identity management schemas and portals are all platforms for experience and innovation. But none of these are about the experience itself.

I think we need Sun Microsystems and the handful of remaining innovators in the information and communication technology world to keep their vision and strategy fixed on creating the experience and let the invisible hand of the marketplace do its thing without it hijacking the corporate strategy and pushing technologists back to the plumbing department.

More tomomrrow from San Francisco.

Posted by lsg8 at 09:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2005

Next Killer Academic Major - Gaming at College

According to the 2005 Horizon's Report issued by the NMC and NLII, 2 major "killer apps" are on the 2-3 year horizon. Each year the Horizon Report issues a finding on emerging technology and higher education based on interviews and research involving more than 500 technologists, futurists and education leaders. According to the recently released report, in the next two to three years intelligent searching will emerge as a key space for the teaching and learning community. The other major trend is academic gaming. Gaming in support of learning is indeed an emerging theme around higher education circles.

Professor Marc Buchner from EECS at Case is moving ahead with the development and construction of a "Virtual Worlds" gaming and simulation lab in Olin funded by a Case Provost Opportunity Grant.

Jared E. Bendis at Case's New Media Studio has been working on Virtual Worlds and Gaming for nearly a decade and is a national authority in the area of 3D and mobility forms of gaming.

Juregn Faust and his colleagues at the Cleveland Institute of Art are well along in both an undergraduate and graduate degree program in Gaming. The CIA and the Cleveland Museum of Art have collaborated on an online massive player game on discovery and exploration in ancient Egypt.

Then of course, there is the plan for a massive investment in simulation technology by the Case School of Medicine in partnership with other academic units at Case, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, the Veteran's Administration Hospital, Tel Aviv University, and Simbionix, among others.

A quick environmental scan suggests that the academic potential in Cleveland for a Gaming cluster for academic curriculum development in music, art, science and medicine. The new inter-departmental program in Cognitive Science will be yet another important dimension and differentiator to the offering in Cleveland. What we need is to wrap these discrete and largely unconnected activities into a single integrated and branded package. This has been done very effectively out at UC San Diego and UC Irvine in the much publicized Cal-IT2 Gaming Culture and Technology Lab.

Then of course there is this week's announcement at USC in creating the first endowed chair in gaming. Video game maker Electronic Arts and the University of Southern California (USC) this week created the nation's first endowed chair for the study of interactive entertainment. Bing Gordon, chief creative officer and cofounder of Electronic Arts, will serve as the first holder of the new chair at the USC School of Cinema-Television. Electronic Arts, which launched in 1981, is the leading producer of computer games, and Gordon was involved in nearly every game the company has produced. Gordon previously co-taught a class at Stanford University on video-game design. The endowed chair will rotate every one to two years among leaders in the field, and each chair will serve as a visiting professor at USC. CNN, 8 February 2005

The time is right. I hope we can seize the moment and begin to brand Case and Cleveland with having the next killer academic multi-degree major in gaming. The Horizon Report is right on. We have two or three years at most. Let's step up.

Posted by lsg8 at 11:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack