As of July 1, 2011, I am the new chair of the New Media department. I’m taking over for Prof. Owen Smith, who did a great job chairing New Media for a number of years, and Prof. Susan Groce, interim chair and holder of the torch during this transition. This is a chance to get my feet wet a bit. It’s literally a “Hello World” post, so I’ll leave that title on it.
I’ve always shied away from blogs, probably because I’m never been quite sure I have anything truly useful to say on a daily basis. So this blog will not be updated on a daily basis. It’ll be updated when I feel the urge to update it. How’s that?
I’ve been a Computer Science Professor for 26 years in the University of Maine Computer Science Department, I’ve been teaching Computer Science related courses since 1977, and I’ve been involved with computing since 1971 (I was introduced to Fortran in College at the age of 20. Do the math.) As chair of New Media, it’s probably a good thing that you get a chance to see what I’m thinking, however dangerous that might be for you.
So where does New Media enter the picture for me? I was involved with the first efforts to start a multi-media minor at the University of Maine as early as 1992, and I was with that committee until the major was created and christened “New Media.” I confess that the name “New Media” didn’t resonate well, and in retrospect that was because I missed the relativist connotation of “New.” I can still remember thinking, “New? What do you mean New? What’s New will soon be old and then New is Newer, etc., etc.”
To get a working handle on the “New” in “New Media,” I’ve needed to ground it by asking “New with respect to..,” “Game changing with respect to..,” “ahead of the cultural wave,” and so on. I’ve looked at how media related technology has affected regional, national, and global politics, social networks, the financial world, the arts, communication and journalism, scientific inquiry, health care – what have I forgotten? This list is extensive, and the New Media department is directly in the middle of it all.
As a fellow liberal arts colleague likes to say, I’m a gear head. I like it that way because it’s comfortable. I can lose myself in the mechanics. Here’s the problem. New Media is by no means a comfortable discipline. Staying ahead of the wave means thinking outside of the box, predicting the future on a mere hint of where we’re going, and then having the audacity to act on these predictions. I’ve heard it said that New Media faculty are snake oil salesman. I wouldn’t disagree, although what separates them from snake oil salesmen is that they actually have more than an ounce of ethics, or so we hope.
I interacted with New Media in a safe way, by riding the wave, not getting in front of it. I taught a fairly intensive course for gear head New Media students exploring Director, Lingo, and the architecture of interactive, event driven systems. There were very interesting topics to be explored – a behavioral, multi-process, multi-agent, actor based model of computation set within a funky framework of movies, scripts, sprites, and behaviors. But this stuff was easy for me. It’s just gear head mechanics.
In addition to this Director course, I also co-taught a New Media overview course, using a fairly traditional “multi-media” textbook. Again, this seemed ambitious to me, but was ultimately a fairly safe exercise. Ride the wave, and dump heaps of technology on the students. It wasn’t about “New Media.”
Fast forward 10 or so years. I was off in Computer Science working on software architecture and reuse, technology for K-12 education, and complex adaptive systems. During that time I participated in a project with the MIT Media Lab Epistemology and Learning group and the Santa Fe Institute for Complexity to teach complex adaptive systems to high school teachers and students. I also worked on a project with Seymour Papert to develop new programming paradigms for young programmers. Actually the University of Maine ASAP New Media Lab helped me to develop web presence for some of this work.
New Media faculty member Mike Scott had mentioned to me a few times about the future possibility of me taking the New Media chair position. I finally said, “Ok, let’s hear what you have to offer.” One thing led to another, a bit of soul searching, personal exploration into New Media issues, a bit of poking around the department’s faculty and projects, and here I am.
I see challenges ahead for the department. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in any academic department between theory and practice, and there’s a golden opportunity here to explore that balance in a department as young as New Media. We’ve always said that Computer Science is a relatively young discipline, if only based on the fact that most of its seminal work has been done by researchers that are still alive (or, as we get a bit older, recently passed on). Unfortunately Computer Science is becoming mature enough that it is fracturing into a number of sub-disciplines; database systems, software architecture, programming languages, 2D and 3D graphics, operating systems, security, networking, algorithms, complexity, and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. Undergraduate programs are top-heavy with very narrow domain courses that seem to need to be taught at all costs. The price is high. True innovation is left until the final Capstone experience, and once students get to that point a bit too much of their innovative spark has been squeezed out.
New Media on the other hand is still in its generalist phase. True New Media researchers still study and reflect on all aspects of the New Media problem, just as Computer Scientists did in the ’50’s and ’60’s. We can embrace this newness, developing synergies between faculty and students that we can’t as easily do in a Computer Science Department of similar size. And that’s the challenge – intense collaboration. The whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts.
I’d like to use this blog to explore ideas in New Media that are interesting to me. By no means will I attempt to try to create a complete cover of the discipline. I have little clue what that might entail. But I have been stimulated by a number of topics that I’d like to share with you. Maybe that’ll stimulate you to share your thoughts with me. As Arlo Guthrie says, and I’m liberally paraphrasing here, “if we can get 50 new people a day thinking about this stuff, it’ll be a movement.”