“Over the High-Tech Rainbow”

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The title of this post is borrowed from Sue Halpern‘s article in the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books (ironically, the article is behind a paid gateway). It is by far one of the most fascinating and concise articles I have read in some time because Ms. Halpern raises questions that are fundamental to our future. Beginning with a tribute to the genius of Steve Jobs for developing Siri in the iPhone 4S, Halpern reminds us of Jobs’ frequent tribute to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going.”

In a society that has many broken institutions, Halpern is remarkably hopeful, describing efforts to improve “clean-tech” energy production, viewing the world’s most pressing problems as opportunities, and the kind of innovative biotech that Steve Jobs used to manage his cancer. He was unsuccessful, according to Halpern, because he was playing where the puck was going to be, not where it was.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

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The implications of Halpern’s ideas are profound, particularly in our current society that has lost sight of planing for the future, and is understandably interested in recovering the status quo. When your car doesn’t run, you have it repaired so it will run as it did before. But all of us experience that moment when we decide it is not worth fixing the car; it is time to buy a new one. Society today has not yet crossed that threshold, and until we do, we will be stuck on the near side of the rainbow, forgetting there is a far side that contains the proverbial pot of gold.

The kinds of innovation Halpern discusses will require both heavy financial commitments and big-time brainpower. Those are the two characteristics of our society that are sitting in the garage rather than on the open road. As a democrat who always believed in the value of public goods and social programs, I am humbled to say that the Republican emphasis on protecting the “5%,” who are the captains of our economy, may be well-placed. Yes, we need to get the rest of our society back to work, but that will only happen if the 5% get excited about funding technology research that will create jobs. President Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” may have been ahead of its time.

More importantly, the 5% will not live forever, and their offspring represent a very small slice of our workforce. The challenges for education are enormous, teaching all kids to think about where the puck will be rather than where it is. Imagine an educational philosophy that promotes the charge, “Question everything.” We need to cultivate a Steve Jobs type of mind in almost every child, and we need teachers who buy into the notion that preparing our kids for a very challenging future is in their best interest, and bureaucrats who understand that higher order thinking skills cannot be cultivated in the realm of the multiple choice question.

Finally, there are those who favor progress, but worry about the ethical issues that result from “messing with the essence of humanity” in laboratories. Recall that dinosaurs became extinct because they were unable to adapt to environmental changes. That is perhaps the best reason for “rewriting the life code,” to adapt to a changing environment. Halpern speaks eloquently of the ethical issue in the article: “It’s not clear where, in the process of innovation, questions of ethics arise, or if the process is so solipsistic and self-referential that the answers are largely beside the point.” The Open Source movement grew out of a desire to democratize knowledge and expertise, and it has provided numerous benefits to individuals and the marketplace, but over the long haul, knowledge will become the premier unit of economic value, and if it does not command a handsome return, what will provide the incentive to develop new ideas and technologies (Daniel Pink should weigh in here)?

Halpern has posed all the right questions, and now we need the appropriate answers. The purpose of this post is to begin the conversation, not to end it.

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A Social Media and Politics Project

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I’m currently working with one of our best students on a Capstone project that asks the following question: “Is there a form of social media that, properly analyzed, could be used to predict the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election?” After consulting with a polling expert at Wesleyan University, we came to the conclusion that it was possible to use social media based on polling theories, but that we would be in uncharted waters. This Professor suspected there was a chance that Twitter might be used to forecast a national election outcome, based on the assumption that Twitter had become a reliable gauge of public sentiment in some circles. My student immediately searched for similar studies and uncovered the following:

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

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1. The CIA has an  entire division that does nothing but look at public data for the purpose of characterizing the mood of a nation or group: “The intelligence analysts at the agency’s Open Source Center, who other agents refer to as ‘vengeful librarians,’ are tasked with sifting through millions of tweets, Facebook messages, online chat logs, and other public data on the World Wide Web to glean insights into the collective moods of regions or groups abroad.” (The Atlantic Monthly – Jared Keller)

2. Analysis of Twitter feeds have already been used to predict the behavior of the stock market, perhaps an even more fickle index than public sentiment: “Here we investigate whether measurements of collective mood states derived from large-scale Twitter feeds are correlated to the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) over time… we find an accuracy of 87.6% in predicting the daily up and down changes in the closing values of the DJIA.” (study completed at Indiana University)

I love this project because it combines rigorous analysis of political trends and a study of Twitter as a predictive rather than reflective social networking tool (what some have called “crowdsourcing”). Suppose we could ascertain the ongoing sentiment of our students through a review of an appropriate Twitter feed?  Love to hear your feedback.


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