Our Devices, Ourselves: Life in a Reflective Age

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Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the path of information has such a direct impact on the content of a message that the path of the message is more important than the content itself.  Basically, the fact that information is being transmitted through a newspaper, or through an email, or phone call, or a television, has such direct control over the person crafting the message, that inevitably the method of communication embeds itself in the DNA of the message.

So, if we accept McLuhan’s premise that the medium really is the message, what happens when every message we send to one another is mediated by a digital middle-man?  We rely on smartphones to transmit our voices (sometimes via voicemails, sometimes through live verbal conversation), we limit ourselves to 160 characters in a text message (140 in a Tweet), and we accept our posts out to friends and followers to have certain layout and size limitations across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on.

What happens as our technology gets smarter?  As Facebook learns what we are more likely to click, when Google customizes our search results to fit with our search history, and when our recent actions are used by our computers to anticipate what we might do next?  All of these aforementioned things happen now, and trends indicate that we’re heading further in the direction of customized everything.  In this way, the medium through which information travels impacts the content in ever-escalating ways. Ever heard of “The Internet of Things (IoT)?”  The basic idea of this is that as many aspects of our lives are digitally connected, many of which learn our habits and preferences, increasingly working in tandem to make life more convenient. Companies now work to build devices that embrace the IoT in areas both mundane (home lights and temperatures adjusting on their own, based on your schedule) and significant (wellness indicators that can directly connect with health providers).  As our technology gets smarter, its role in our communications and actions grows larger.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is primary reason why devices like smartphones are so useful.

The implications of a more fully integrated, intelligent, and responsive world around us are being realized every day.  One such implication, however, is the idea that our devices and applications are reflections of ourselves.  Think about it this way — In the movie Her, Samantha (the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson) layers an encyclopedic knowledge of information onto a complex analysis of the preferences of the user (played by Joaquin Phoenix).  So, the system operates with an infinite set of resources, all designed to cater to the user’s every specific whim.

house of mirrors
Source: http://www.barcelonafootballblog.com/22023/believing-beliefs-aka-bara-house-mirrors/

If our devices are really becoming reflections of ourselves, many questions are raised. Are the reflected images accurate, or are they skewed, as in a funhouse mirror? Are our actions changed, based on the assumption that other people will likely see those actions publicly online (see: Cooley’s Looking-glass self theory)? Do our interactions with one another contain the same value online as they do offline? Are the screens through which we exchange information barriers to communication in addition to serving as facilitators? Do the multiple layers that exist between person A and person B in a digital message result isolation for both parties?

I’m not entirely certain where I stand on these issues, to be honest. Either way, I think we owe ourselves an ongoing audit of our technologies, in a search for good, bad and in between.  I’ll end with one of my favorite videos/songs from last year that points a critical eye at our reflective age:

Arcade Fire ‘Reflektor’ from Final Cut on Vimeo.

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Looking for Gaps in the Literature: Higher Education in a Digital Age

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Note: This blog post is cross-posted at the ACPA Digital Task Force Blog, but I thought it might be relevant here for anyone interested in the work that we’ve been doing on the ACPA Research & Scholarship group as part of the ACPA Digital team.  Free free to share your thoughts here or on the original post!

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As part of our work on the Research & Scholarship subcommittee, our team recently began officially exploring what we perceive to be the gaps in the literature on digital technology and higher education.  Of course, many of us in our doctoral programs have already done quite a bit on this search, and so our combined backgrounds served as a great starting point for this project.  Still, in a new but burgeoning field, it is our expectation that we will not be able to identify all of the gaps on our own.  Our hope is that the gaps that we identify help to further the conversation that is then continued by the community of scholarly practitioners and faculty in higher education.  Below are some of the large gaps that we’ve already discussed as a group.  With that, we ask: what gaps have we not yet identified? Higher Education in a Digital Age: Large Gaps in the Literature

  • Demographic Differences in Technology Use and Issues of Equity – Much of the literature on technology use in higher education looks at general trends and suggests parsing the data further to uncover the impact of technology on minority groups.  How can our research help to work towards the larger goals relating to equity within higher education?
  • Qualitative Research – The majority of work out there on social media use is quantitative – what topics have already been explored from a quantitative perspective that would benefit from the addition of qualitative data?
  • The Evolving Definition of Leadership Within Contemporary Higher Education (Due in Large Part to Technological Change) – The question of “what does it mean to be an effective leader within higher education (in 2014)?” is the focus of entire graduate programs/degrees.  How is technology impacting this central aspect of higher education administration?
  • Globalization of Higher Education and Technology’s Role in this Process – There are seemingly endless areas for exploration here, from BRIC nations and other emerging markets, to student mobility, to opportunities for the democratizing of education through web accessibility.  What questions need to be asked in this area?
  • MOOCS and Other Online Higher Education Environments – As these educational options persist, researchers are just now beginning to explore the areas that have long been studied within student personnel/higher education scholarship.  Research opportunities in this emerging area are already extensive, with more still yet to be realized.
  • Application of Long-Standing Theories (and the Creation of New Theory Where Necessary) Within the Contemporary Context – Huge areas of work are just now being revisited when accounting for digital contexts.  Within higher education, a starting point might be direct analyses of student development theory online and blended environments.
  • Higher Education Population Studies – From graduate students, faculty, and new professionals to SSAOS and college presidents, quantitative and qualitative research needs to be explored on usage, perception, and educational needs of each level within education.
  • Social Media and Social Justice – What does this relationship look like? What education is working, who is doing it right, and is it even possible at the large scale?

So, what do you think? The power of crowdsourcing can help us to push higher education scholarship forward, but your involvement is imperative. Let us know your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter at #ACPAdigital!

Adam Gismondi
@AdamGismondi
Research & Scholarship Committee, ACPADigital