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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
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    The Age of Optimization (part 2)
    Project: The Total Library
    Academia in the age of the search engine

    Historically, the world’s universities have been the elegant search engines of the past. Professors would take their students into the library where they would single out a particular book and hand it over to their disciples, ritualistically sharing the cultural canon on which our civilization is built.

    Image: Teaching at Paris, in a late 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Source

    It is a distinguished system that has been working well for centuries. But even with today’s embryonic search technology students are able to obtain a fair amount of the wisdom they need from a worldwide utility consisting of invisible machines that are able to share their knowledge electronically, while instantly becoming expert at any number of disciplines. In addition, an ongoing exchange takes place in which a multitude of internet users are customizing and updating information by sharing, annotating, and linking it, creating different contexts and connections, which are in turn picked up again by machines throughout the system, and so on - ad infinitum. Here are some of the future implications that might be considered by the academic world:

    • Rapid technological and societal change has created a student population that is consistently more tech-savvy and ahead of the curve than most of the faculty that is teaching them.
    • To keep up with this situation, the institution will have to accept the idea that two brains (human and computer) are better than one, while acknowledging a more dynamic model of information exchange whereby students are encouraged to teach other students as well as their teachers, who in turn may provide the students’ self-acquired knowledge (mostly based on copious online research) with a more rigorously informed and/or creative framework.
    • Given the fact that education increasingly takes place outside the class room or the libraries that used to be central to the academic program, future students may begin to question the value of moving across the country or even continents to study on distant campuses. Especially considering the substantial cost of this education which is often paid for in the form of student loans that may burden them for years to come, particularly in an unreliable job market.
    • One thing is for certain, significant changes are afoot even for the most venerable of institutions. MIT’s public education program, for example, makes its entire curriculum freely available to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world.
    • Currently all of the university’s 1800 courses can be accessed on the web, drawing 1.4 million visitors every month, 60% of them coming from outside North America. This type of virtual education can be greatly enhanced by bringing certain aspects of a college education into the online environment, like remote virtual audiences with favorite professors, which in the near future should become commonplace.
    • As it stands, even today’s college-bound students spend most of their time doing homework off-campus and online, while on a personal level they have learned to stay in touch through social networks, cell phones and instant messaging, considerably reducing their dependency on the institution’s physical facilities.

    • Image by Phil Wheeler

    • Staunch believers in the social incubation period commonly offered by universities may take note that, besides today's prevalence of online social networks, other social aspects of collegiate lifestyles can easily be replicated wherever young people congregate, from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg to downtown Los Angeles and other low rent neighborhoods across the country.
    • Assuming that the virtualization of academia will continue, we can even imagine how in the future empty dorms and other vacated facilities on America’s sprawling campus grounds may house a mixed student population the same way today’s local arts districts are now populated by creative individuals.

    As we shall see, this scenario would be consistent with similar trends developing in several other areas of contemporary life.

    The optimization of urban space

    These days an increasing number of US cities have a local arts district where vacated office buildings and warehouses have been converted into live/work lofts, ideally suited for a community that is spared the drudgery of having to commute to work every day. As it happens, these repurposed buildings date back to the industrial revolution which came to an end when today’s digital infrastructure facilitated the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to third world countries. Such shifting spatial requirements from one era to the next can be expected in other areas as well. To pick just one example, the world’s built environment houses a huge volume of paperwork, which, analogous to the National Archive’s 650 miles of book stacks, referred to in part 1 can potentially be collapsed into a few feet of digital storage space. Below are a few examples:

    a. Paperwork

    The following numbers demonstrate society’s outrageous dependency on paperwork:

    • 90% of corporate memory is stored on paper.
    • The total stock of paper held by US companies consists of 130 billion sheets, which works out to approximately 650 million cubic feet, adding up to six of the largest office towers in the world.
    • The average document gets copied 19 times.
    • Professional people spend 5-15% of their time reading information, but up to 50% looking for it (which in the age of search borders on absurdity).
    • There are over 4 trillion documents in the US alone, growing at a rate of 23% per year.
    • It takes 200 million average-size filing cabinets to fit all of these 4 trillion pages, adding up to 1.2 billion square feet of office space. That’s enough square footage to cover two Manhattans.
    • Worldwide estimates would amount to 500 million filing cabinets occupying 3 billion square feet of office space, or nearly 5 Manhattans.

    Besides the apparent inefficiency of this system, there is another price to pay:
    • Approximately 1 billion trees worth of paper are thrown away every year in the U.S.
    • In fact, each year Americans throw away the equivalent of more than 30 million trees in newsprint alone.
    • In total, the amount of wood and paper we throw away per year is enough to heat 50,000,000 homes for 20 years.

    b. Self-storage space

    As with all issues of space, the United States is by far the most profligate when it comes to the all-pervasive self-storage phenomenon. This is especially remarkable considering that the average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s and now stands at 2,349 square feet.

    • There are 41.000 (!) storage facilities across the country, compared to 600 in the UK and 100 in Australia.
    • The monthly storage space Americans are currently renting is estimated at a total of 2.194 billion square feet, which at 78 square miles amounts to an area more than 3 times the size of Manhattan.
    • In fact, for every man, woman and child in the nation there is 6.86 sq. ft. of self storage space, which would make it physically possible for every US citizen to stand at the same time under its total expanse of corrugated roofing.

    Most of the time these self-storage areas tend to be deserted, suggesting that the stored contents are of marginal value to their owners. Typically, these consist of redundant items like tax returns, canceled checks and other personal documents, as well as books, CD's, etc. To the extent that these belongings are worth saving at all, most of them could be much cheaper stored online where it would take up little or no space while remaining organized and accessible. Not just for the short term, but as personal time capsules which could be of future archival or statistical interest.

    c. Audiovisual media

    Moving on to film and video:

    • The US Government stores about one billion feet of archivally significant film material.
    • Spread out over 384 facilities, this combined film footage could circle the globe 400 times.
    • If all of this information would be encoded and compressed into video files which could be referenced online, its 200 Terabytes of data could easily be stored on a server the size of a home closet.
    • At this point we’re not even talking about the towering amounts of canned celluloid distributed for centuries by the Hollywood film industry, which is about to save huge sums of money on storage space and transportation bills thanks to the advent of digital projection as well as Video On Demand which spells the imminent demise of the physical wares currently fighting for shelf space in the video store.
    • Similarly, TV broadcasters all over the world are moving away from videotape to become a file-based medium. As they migrate the ever-growing contents of their vaults to a super efficient digital utility, their way of interfacing with the public will change completely once their medium will adopt the interactivity of the Internet.

    d. Internet retail

    iTunes, whose entire music inventory takes up a negligible amount of server space, sells over 1 billion songs per month, beating former US record holder Walmart whose big box operation maintains a massive warehoused inventory of 4 million CDs and DVDs.

    • The iTunes model is being carefully watched by major retailer Amazon who cornered the online market by selling millions of books online and cutting out the stores.
    • Judging from Amazon’s recent introduction of its Kindle electronic reading device it seems apparent that the company is now developing its own strategy to forego the physical products that initially made them one of the most successful online retailers.
    • For the moment Amazon still misses a truly effective way to entice people to engage with written content to be read on screens. However, the rapid descent of newspaper circulation in favor of the internet speaks volumes, and for those who prefer it, foldable electronic paper is on its way. Besides, it won’t be long before we will be able to "goggle" into a fully immersive information space, offering variable modes of perception for gaming, teleconferencing, 2D and 3D movies as well as a convenient interface for reading.

    e. Games at the intersection of virtual and physical space

    Another interesting example of physical space being partially subsumed by the digital realm is Nintendo’s revolutionary Wii controller. This highly successful gaming device so seamlessly straddles the intersection between the analog and the digital domain that one can easily imagine how its interface could precipitate the end of bowling alleys, tennis courts, and perhaps even the closure of your local gym. More than just another example of the virtual appropriation of physical space, the Wii’s success story in particular serves as convincing confirmation of a major shift in the way our existence is beginning to simultaneously take place in the overlapping realms of physical and virtual realities.

    End of Part II.
    Also see Part I and Part III

    Tue, Aug 26, 2008  Permanent link

    Sent to project: The Total Library
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