“Remember when Luke’s running the trench in the Death Star, and he’s about to fire his fateful shot, and at the last minute he decides to turn off the targeting computer and use the Force instead?” So begins an article that references a scene from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope to argue that “machines can now see into the future, and we ignore them at our peril.” The article continues, “We romanticize that moment—not just because it represents Luke’s coming into his own as a Jedi, but because to us, the decision to trust an intuition born deep in nature and honed over billions of lifetimes instead of some newfangled tech seems somehow right and good. The irony, of course, is that in our galaxy, technology is the Force. Increasingly, it’s computers that train our intuition. It’s computers that help us perceive beyond our senses.”

The article provides several examples of technology enhancing human intuition and performance, such as chess players using software to expand their abilities, and doctors using CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs instead of knives to explore the innards of patients. The article concludes with this prediction: “we’ll use computers to explore possible futures, and over time we’ll learn how to see those futures for ourselves, almost to feel them, to the point where it’ll seem to those not in the know that we have command of an arcane force.” That may be a bit far-fetched…I hope.

Dr. Lawrence Quill is an SJSU Professor of Political Science who often provides commentary on technology news (such as in a recent Financial Times op-ed: “Tech companies are doing what oil and steel companies have been doing for decades, but they have a halo around them.”). I asked him for his take on the article. He notes:

That article, it seems to me, is talking about augmented reality. Pokemon Go was an app that applied that in a trivial fashion. But Google Glass was a more sophisticated version.

Economists suggest that this way of thinking about the relationships between computer and human labor is the best version of a future that will be dominated by machines and information. Work with machines, they say, rather than against them.

I guess we’ll see.

But if we return to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars and Luke, I think the author of the Atlantic piece has omitted something important. For Luke, and the audience, the force was something without and within. A person looked inside in order to harness the power of the Force all around them. Technology is not the Force. Technology is always external and never ‘within’ – unless we take Elon Musk’s advice and become cyborgs, of course!

The ‘inside’ to which I’m referring is that ‘spiritual’ inside, the West’s inheritance from Christianity. Augustine’s interior space provided the foundation for Western concepts like free will and, more broadly, free agency; concepts that are fundamental to how we have come to understand politics and what it means to be human.

It is that space that is collapsing (and freedom with it). There are a few reasons for this:

1) The assault on religious thinking especially since Darwin but more broadly as a result of Modernity
2) The twentieth century equivalence (post-Turing) of mind and machine (and information)
3) Paradoxically, the quasi-religious desire to free ourselves from the body in order to download consciousness so that we may become immortal – you never really escape from Christianity’s influence. It just becomes a mash up!

Elon Musk’s comment should be taken against the background of the ideas (1-3) above. His cyborg future, which may become reality, is a kind of protest against an uncontrolled future of AI where human agency disappears. The message is simple: become a cyborg or be a human slave. Augmented reality or bust.

The Atlantic article channels the same message. Those who use The Force (technology) will leave the rest behind in their wake. How curious that the author would use a modern myth of techno-spirituality (Star Wars) to make the point.

This sounds like technological determinism and it is. But while the myth of human freedom remains, I will probably keep on saying that the present, and the future, could be different. It could be more humane (?). We could imagine a future where AI and robotics serves human (?) ends, rather than the other way around.

I am not especially hopeful, however, as neither policy-makers, nor the public, nor any other group are providing us with the key ideas of a human future that embraces technology for human ends. Instead, we must turn to William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) style corporations and Hollywood which, for now at least, seems obsessed with a dystopian eventuality.

I am a little bit more hopeful that we can escape dystopian ends. Keeping Professor Quill’s commentary in mind can help us to try to journey in a more positive direction.

On my two-hour afternoon commute home from campus I frequently listen to audiobooks from Audible. They have created an interactive map of some of the listening habits of their members. They note, “We took a look at how some of your favorite genres play out across the country. You might be surprised where you and your fellow listeners cross paths.” Indeed!

The CityLab website has an interesting story about American megaregions, complete with a link to an interactive map. It appears that I now live in “Goldengate” (the SF Bay Area + Sacramento). I’ve also resided in “Laurentide” (Minneapolis-St. Paul area), “Winnebago” (Milwaukee area), “Twain” (St. Louis), “Tecumseh” (Indianapolis area), “Roanoke” (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), “Catalpa” (Charlotte), and “Peachtree” (Atlanta). Interesting!

The New York Times“Economic View” section is “a column that explores life through an economic lens with leading economists and writers.” The March 17, 2017 entry has an interesting twist, as it asks, “What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Author Neil Erwin notes:

[A]s much as we love economics here — this column is named Economic View, after all — there just may be a downside to this one academic discipline having such primacy in shaping public policy.

They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product.

Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depression, drug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

Erwin discusses a 1967 proposal by then Senator Walter Mondale to create a White House Council of Social Advisers to compliment the Council of Economic Advisers. As a sociologist I’d be happy to see my disciplinary colleagues on the new council. As a social sciences dean I should state that other disciplines should also be represented! Regardless of membership, it is doubtful that the Trump White House would entertain the possibility of a White House Council of Social Advisers [or Advisors; I prefer the -or vs. -er spelling]. Perhaps this idea can be revived when the 46th president takes office….

Democracy in the United States is currently in rough shape, as declining trust and increasing inequality make it harder for citizens to find common ground. Michael Neblo is an Ohio State University political scientist who argues that bringing more individuals into the political discussion could reverse the process, and this increased discussion could be facilitated by the Internet. The Pacific Standard magazine recently conducted an interview with Professor Neblo. The interview concludes with, “I think there is room for angry protest in a democracy. If you think the Affordable Care Act is crucial legislation, by all means get out there and show them how angry you are at the prospect of it being dismantled. But there should also be room for civil, substantive discussion.” Indeed!

Every weekday (and usually also on Sundays) I commute to work via the Amtrak Capitol Corridor train from Oakland to San José. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes each way. Adding time to get to or from the stations in Oakland and San José plus allowing extra time for potential traffic delays, my commute is about two hours each way…four hours per day (!). According to the short documentary Train Life, however, my Capitol Corridor commute is pretty normal. Train Life was made in 2004, and is composed of interviews of passengers on the Sacramento-Berkeley leg of the Capitol Corridor. Someone should remake it to focus on the Oakland-San José leg. If I were the filmmaker I’d also add interviews with the conductors, and ask folks about their use of technology while on the train [I’m a bit surprised that this did not come up in the interviews.] I’d be a lot less happy, for example, without my iPad, Internet access via free Wi Fi, and wireless headphones…

My wife’s mother is a retired elementary school science teacher, and her sister in law is currently an elementary/middle school teacher and assistant principal. One of the sister in law’s students is applying for a spot in a summer camp for middle school kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers; I was sent a draft of the application essay for comments. The prompt is “how would you use math and science to change the world?” I decided to write a sample essay that, perhaps, the seventh-grade student could use as a model for how to more tightly focus her essay, which was very broad and general. In twenty minutes I whipped up 500 words, and showed the sample essay to my mother in law, who said that the language was at an impossibly high level for the student to engage! Also, of course, I veered off too much into social science territory instead of sticking to the STEM weeds. We were able to come up with an outline of how the student might restructure her essay, but will not send my sample essay. I thought that it would be fun to post it here on “Dispatches From a Dean,” however!

The TV show Humans is about a world where most families have a synthetic human companion – a “synth” – who cooks, cleans, and cares for them. This is a very interesting premise, but doesn’t totally reflect the world I see in 100 years. For one thing, the main family in the TV show is a traditional TV nuclear family: a married mom and dad who both work outside the home, and two teenage kids at home. But what about a multi-generational home with grandma living at home to help care for grandkids who are homeschooled? What if one parent works from home all day, and one of the kids has special needs? I would use science, math, and technology to design a home and synthetic companions that better reflect this more probable world.

For example, zoning laws in Northern California are changing to allow denser living. In Oakland we can now build “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs) in the back yard where grandma can live, and have easy access to the grandkids. ADUs are not huge, though, so we have to make careful use of space and the items within. We can use new advanced technology to make appliances smaller, quieter, and less energy-intensive. We would of course use recycled materials, and make sure that we have bins for recycling and composting. We’d also look at alternative fuels for heating and cooling. Maybe hydrogen cells that run on salt water? We have plenty of that in the Pacific Ocean! Perhaps the family synth would be hydrogen-powered.

I’ve never seen a bus in Humans, but in my world we’d definitely have mass transit options. Grandma might not be able to drive, you know! The buses wouldn’t be the slow and stinky diesel gas-powered beasts of today. They’d run on alternative fuels (maybe hydrogen cells here too!), and would be controlled via advanced Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Perhaps a fleet of synth-driven cars would circulate to ferry humans from the buses and light rail trains on major streets to their houses and ADUs. Maybe synths would not be needed, as self-driving cars would do the job.

I think that many folks would also live in densely packed high-rise units. So for these we’d need to come up with better green space ideas, since folks can’t be cooped up inside all day. Perhaps each high rise would have a rooftop garden with trees for shade and sunny patches for vegetable gardens. Gardens could also be built on each floor, and hydroponic systems can be used in places where soil wouldn’t work. Light, water, and temperature levels would be computer controlled, and also adapt to the presence of humans, pets, and synths.

In sum, my world would have many advanced and interconnected systems. I would need a strong knowledge of science and math to not only understand each individual element, but it is also essential to get the components to work together. I look forward to the challenge!

The Posse Foundation recruits high school students with high academic and leadership potential to attend higher education institutions in groups as a strategy for decreasing isolation and improving student success. An alumna from the very first cohort in 1989 will soon become the first Posse member to become a college president. Awesome!

One of my meetings today was about SJSU’s forthcoming search for a Chief Information Officer (CIO). A executive search firm will assist with the recruitment, and was on campus today to speak with administrators about the elements of the position. One of my comments was that information technology (IT) on campus is often viewed like a public utility: it’s a necessity, but we only notice it when it’s not properly functioning; the new CIO will have the opportunity to collaborate extensively with folks and make investments to refresh the infrastructure and reduce some of the problems. When I got back to the office I discovered a Pacific Standard magazine story about why the American Internet should be regarded as a public utility. While not directly reacted to IT on campus, I’ll have to share it with the new CIO…

I am on the board of directors of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a professional organization for deans of colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Fellow board member Kate Conley has published a very timely op-ed about the value of liberal arts eduction in 2017…and beyond. Please check it out!