- The University as a Fully Integrated and Distributed Platform:A Vision
As I come through the front door of the library, the visitor sign pulses and glows, recognizing me as a stranger. A guide comes toward me. “Welcome,” he says, extending his hand. At first I’m not sure if it’s an avatar or a RealOne, and then I notice the untied sneaker and frayed cuff on his jeans and realize he’s a human, but his light conductivity makeup gives him a surreal quality, as if he were made of neoPlastique.
My guide waves a signal wand, and the signage in the large hall to the left of the entry lights up. The illuminated fretwork speaks volumes—as if all contemporary knowledge were mapped into the old architecture of the building. The words History, Geography, Literature, Statistics, Ecological Studies, and other big subject categories appear as if suspended in thin air. Each area of the room is segmented into a topic or theme, like some vast spatial encyclopedia. He waves again, and tag clouds appear around the subjects, delicate arrows pointing down to clusters of people working. “These are the projects in progress,” he explains, “Los Angeles and the Silver Screen,” “Water resources in real time,” “The Steinbeck project,” and so on. The newbies, first-year students of all ages and from every sector of the global community, are hard at work at input devices—task tables, scanners, keyboards, and cameras; while scattered around them are all the debris and detritus of output—three-dimensional models and supersaturated prints, mockups, and spreadsheets. The walls are lined with books, real and virtual shelves of them.
Above the scene, brightly decorated beams are just touched by fingers of sunlight streaming through the colored glass of the fine old building, or a convincing simulation thereof. The arts and crafts motifs in the ceiling decoration find an echo in the social world below, where the guild of cyber artisans-in-training is organized around teams and tasks. Sound baffles made of recycled plastics spun into fibers add their elaborate lacework to the scene, actively absorbing excess sound and recycling it into buffer bands until they are swollen near to bursting, greedy things. [End Page 325]
Knowledge production was—and is—opportunistic. The first universities were extensions of monastic centers, made to support publication and dissemination of legal, church, medical, and humanistic knowledge. Post-World War II research universities combined the energy of laboratories with the entrepreneurial vision of industry, fueled by support from government programs. The next university, the one I’ve just walked into, is a fully integrated and distributed platform, socially networked, a node of production and review, research and assessment, serving broad communities by providing expertise, training in subject specific domains, as well as techniques for designing knowledge.
“The newbies work at well-defined tasks,” my guide says, “tagging newsfeeds, transcribing data, adding geo-referencing, identifying species markers, clocking molecular bonding rates in new synthetics, taking information off live feeds and putting it into the project modules. The tasks are all a combination of technology skills and discipline-specific knowledge, so they learn both at once. They do piecework until they pass out of the entry-level skill set, then they are eligible for higher level projects.”
A student who has been touching a screen repeatedly and getting an error message presses a Help button. From a central desk another student comes toward her.
“You only get credits for the tasks you finish, but if you can’t figure out how to do something, one of the monitors will help. They get credits for their successes, but they can’t do the work, just give advice. Mentoring is rewarded in measurable units in the Newbie Tank, as we call this level. I know it all sounds very hierarchical,” he laughs, “but it’s like a giant multiplayer game. You bump up as your skill set goes up, and you get credits, tuition and fees are reduced, and your status improves. You can get a free ride if you want to work for two years in the Cultural Commons or Community projects. At the most advanced level...