SHIFT CTRL -Scholarship made relevant

I decided to attend this conference as a gesture of support for a new HCLE collaborator, Dr. Tom Mullaney, who teaches Science and Technology Studies in the History Department at Stanford University. I was prepared to be bored by dull academic readings of incomprehensible papers. Boy, was I wrong. Every talk was lively and relevant to crucial contemporary issues.


Tom opened the session by illuminating the carbon footprint created by bringing us all together and counting up the monetary cost of producing the conference itself. This was both funny and sobering. He then read a scathingly condescending rejection letter he had received from Stanford’s Computer Science Department in response to his invitation for their participation. Apparently CS suffers from the same prejudices I did when it comes to Humanities scholars looking into the impact of science and engineering on the rest of us. Contrary to the rosy predictions we often hear about how computing, electronics and new media will make us all richer, happier and healthier, all the while saving the planet, these presentations provided historical depth, global breadth and systematic analysis of causes and ills, as well as benefits, brought on society by our information revolution.

I can understand why both Stanford’s CS Department and I were skeptical about the value and penetrability of the conference material. As described on the Conference Web site:

“At one level, shifting control refers to the emergent and disruptive new modes of epistemic, legal, and even theological authority that formed in connection with the global rise of computation and new media.”

One could easily hide a lot of gobble-de-gook under such jargon. And I have to admit that I haven’t read the full papers, in part because they are password protected and I haven’t gotten around to asking for the password yet. But the short (18 minute), powerpoint-illustrated presentations were totally down-to-earth, comprehensible to a lay audience and could have made an important contribution to broader civic understanding.

I say “could have” rather than “did” because only a few “outsiders” like myself actually attended this event and it was not recorded or streamed on the internet. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities are engaged in taking a vital look at how computing and new media are changing cultures around the world and asking whether these are directions in which we really want to go. Many people, including myself, have commented that human beings must either take control of computers or be controlled by them. This now 50-year-0ld process is being studied. The voting public needs to know what the outcomes have been so far and take a stand for the future. Control is shifting. Conferences like this will help us interpret the changes that are happening under our noses and, hopefully, encourage us to keep control of so-called technical ‘progress’. Don’t miss the next episode of SHIFT CTRL.

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