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Achieving Amenity

What is "achieving amenity?" Well, for one thing it is a fascinating thought to roll around in your mind as you go through your day experiencing the technologies around you. A contrarian way to define a technology that has achieved "amenity" would be that it is any technology, the users of which do not think of as a "technology."

This phrase, and some other interesting ideas, came to me while watching a Web cast interview of Donald M. Norris, a leading higher education thinker and consultant. Norris often seems like someone who has a personal "window" into which he can peer and see the future, which he then tries to explain to the rest of us in words that are the best anyone can find to describe and explain a world that d'es not yet exist. Imagine a professor at Columbia University in 1870 peering through a virtual window-a professor bright enough to really understand much of what he's seeing--and then trying to describe to colleagues the inside and outside of, and the activities in, say the new Gehry building at MIT, the Stata Center.

The Web cast, and the article on which it is based, is titled "Experiencing Knowledge," and it was an interview of my friend and colleague Donald M. Norris of Strategic Initiatives by another friend and colleague, Thomas C. Longin, executive editor of Planning for Higher Education. Even better, it was part of a series of free Web casts based on peer-reviewed articles published in a new journal about online education, Innovate. Innovate's editor-in-chief is yet another colleague, James Morris, professor emeritus of the University of North Carolina. Every interaction I've ever had with any one of those three great thinkers has been stimulating and, although my participation was limited to simple text lines at the bottom of a Web cast screen, this was no exception.

Last night as I finished boarding up some broken windows in an old outbuilding on my property, in which I am storing a few things this winter, I was admiring the 1920s-style exposed electrical wiring. I was reminded of a book I read last year, a murder mystery, that was set in Rochester, New York right at the peak of the electricity technology revolution when that long-suffering city was among the most exciting places in the world--a "city of lights" powered by a new technology which was seemingly unlimited, with Niagara Falls so close by.

At the time described in the book, and at the time my outbuilding was wired, electricity had not yet achieved amenity. I often think about, and the book went into great detail about, how many people must have been injured or killed due to simple mistakes of understanding when such a dangerous technology as electricity was first being harnessed and was slowly taking its first few steps towards amenity. [One of the great, mostly unknown stories about the path electrical technology took towards amenity is the battle, of ego and dollars, between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla about "alternating" (AC) versus "direct" (DC) current. Eventually, George Westinghouse took Tesla's side and we ended up with the much more dangerous alternating current in the walls of our homes. Kind of reminds you of some of the current "standards" battles, d'esn't it?]

On a less grand scale, the last decade or so has seen some pieces of "information technology" move from being perceived as such towards a state of amenity. In my own office, we've observed consciously the progression of our telephone system from something that IT was responsible for to something that general office operations is responsible for and I am sure most of my colleagues here don't often think of "telephone technology"--they just think of the telephone. Likewise, two other office stalwarts have moved beyond being "xerographic technology" or "laser printing" technology to the office amenities of photocopier and printer, and responsibility for those has also shifted from IT to office operations.

The most recent shift was responsibility for the local area network. Ten years ago it was a mysterious technology and crashed several times a week, requiring elaborate communications and support from a variety of people, inside and outside of the office. Now, I really can't recall it not working properly at any time in the past few years, and it is in a hybrid state, with responsibilities for it moving, as I write, from IT to office operations.

Norris' view, and that of his co-authors, is of a knowledge future where useful and meaningful access to information and knowledge is so infused into the environment that it's transparent, seamless, and most users don't even think of it as anything but just a part of their environment. His article, which I recommend, notes that--as William Gibson (one of my favorite authors) puts it--"the future is here, it's just unevenly distributed." In the article--and in a great deal more depth in his book, Transforming eKnowledge--Norris describes in vignettes some of the places where the technologies which will be knowledge and learning amenities in our future are in place and being used or developed now--after standards battles and commercial battles and maybe even cultural wars, of course.

The good news for people like me and you, is that no matter how fast new information technologies move into a state of amenity, there are likely to be new ones to speculate about. And we work on campus! Where not only is a lot of the new stuff happening, but where it is always a legitimate part of your job to think about such things.

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