The reason I have written this down is that I know that in five minutes we can only hit the high points and that some of these ideas may sound a little off the wall without further explanation. Perhaps you will find time to read further. If it seems a little pedantic, please bear with me, there are some fundamental ideas that have to be established.
Human organizations are much like electronic systems except that instead of using transistors as the active elements, human systems use people. As in electronic systems, the design of the system involves the technology of the interconnection between the active elements. When computing systems, a particular kind of electronic systems, changed from wheels and gears and levers and pulleys to vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits we saw fundamental changes in the kinds of systems which we could build.
At each step of the technology, we saw that a defective element could render the system unworkable, but that in a working system it made no difference in system function when equivalent working components were exchanged. This concept is fundamental in human systems. The technology and architecture of the system determine how the system will work and what it can do. The people in each position can be changed, but if they are properly functioning people (net defective) the overall effect on the system is nil.
In a school, a business, an army, or a city, changing people can only have limited effect on the operation of the system. However, changing the technology or architecture of the organization will have a fundamental effect. The system can become something really different.
My background, education and experience are all in the field of information science. I started out as a control systems engineer, teaching at LSU and working for the Naval Ordnance Lab and then with IBM in Huntsville, Alabama on the Apollo Project. But by 1966 it was apparent that nothing was going to be funded pas the moon landing so I went back to school at the University of Arizona for my PhD. My major professor moved to SMU in Dallas and I moved too, to avoid starting over. SMU in 1967 was implementing the TIGER system, a regional video teaching network, with two way audio. Much of the technology base in Dallas in computers and communications has developed from people who were educated over that system. My degree is in Information Science. I have worked in Systems Engineering, Technology Planning and Product Planning for Recognition Equipment, Inc. (7yrs) and Texas Instruments (2yrs). In 1979 my wife and I started Austin Business Computers, Inc. here in Austin. She runs the company and I figure out how to apply new technologies. It seems like every year we're in a new business.
Dr. Timothy Rowe and I have been working together since 1987. In the period from 1989 to 1991 we were funded by a grant from the Texas State Legislature for development of teaching technology. The result is a compact disk on Thrinaxadon, published by the University of Texas Press. Since that time Dr. Rowe has extended his methods (which are now called multimedia but didn't have a name then) to his lecture courses, labs and research. A very popular course which he teaches is "The Age of Dinosaurs". This has been committed to CD ROM, and has provided a vehicle for developing teaching methods using multimedia technologies.
Dr. Rowe has also established a multimedia lab in the Geology Department which is used by students from all of the School of Natural Sciences for the Multimedia class developed and taught by one of Dr. Rowe's most capable students, Ms. Kyoko Kishi. Dr. Rowe is here today and is available at the University if you have questions.
While Dr. Rowe has been developing practical (and spectacularly successful) teaching methods using multimedia, I have been re-thinking the basis of Information Theory and how it relates to us humans. So far my musings are in the form of a series of manuscripts which I hope will result in a book at some point in time. The working title of the book is "WIK: Wisdom, Information and Knowledge".
The development of these ideas stems from a simple observation about Information Theory: Human Information is different from Machine (Shannon) Information.
Claude Shannon founded Information Theory in 1948 with a seminal paper that established the field. The basic premise was that the capacity of a system to communicate information could be measured in terms of the probabilities of occurrence of characters from an alphabet or set of characters. The simplest set he showed was a two character alphabet with equal probability of transmission.
When one attempts to extend these concepts to the communication between humans, one finds that the medium is language and that the language is extensible (we make up new words). Human communication (as I am sure your experience will verify) is very different from machine communication. Human communication is more concerned with knowledge and wisdom, than with just information. The underlying basis of meaning of human language is tightly coupled to experience, and the early learning is sensory, see, hear, touch, taste, smell. This foundation in "sense" (or "common sense" for culturally shared sensory experience) is completely missing from machines (computer) and their use of language.
Many words which humans use are short hand for capsulized experience. A "Willy Picnic" is a experience that many Austinites share. Our whole language is built up from basic experiences. Teaching is a formal way of ensuring that a future member of our culture gets a full tour of what we, the preceding generation, think is sufficient for membership. Multimedia is a very efficient set of tools for providing experience through "see" and "hear". Multimedia can provide a much deeper definition of a word or concept than a sketch on a chalkboard.
Each area of the Arts and Sciences has their own language. Learning this language, the meaning, not just the spelling and diction, is a big part of leaning the subject. What is learned in a subject we call Knowledge. Knowledge is Information, but Information is not necessarily Knowledge. Some of the biggest management disasters of the last thirty years have resulted from managers confusing information with knowledge. The archetype example is the "body count" syndrome from Viet Nam. "If we just knew how many we killed today we would understand how the war is going." This is continued today "If we just knwe exactly how many students there were in the classroom we would understand why they aren't learning anything."
The process of making decisions with Knowledge, we call Wisdom. Part of Wisdom, is knowing what you don't know. Another part is knowing when to seek more alternatives. "Know when to hold'em, know when to fold'em. Know when to take a card, know when to run."
Machines understand nothing. If they did understand, I'm not sure we would still call them a machine. Of all of the Information on all of our machines, only people can see the underlying meaning hidden in the language of a message. The goal of all of messages seems to be to communicate to the next generation all of the knowledge and wisdom which we have collected thus far. Our ancestors once did it on the wall of a cave, with accompanying dialog. We do it with books, libraries, museums, and now CRT's and stereo speakers. The goal is the same. The machines don't need to understand. Our children do.
Part of passing on our legacy of Knowledge, is to boil it down and condense it into a shorter learning period so that the new generation can learn more. Multimedia has a great potential here, and the payback are enormous.
Ducks to water is a good way to describe how kids adapt to the multimedia technologies. It is their language. The process which Dr. Rowe has developed is to let the kids be the technologists. Dr. Rowe and Ms. Kishi and Ruben Reyes, the lab technician, train the students in the necessary technical skills. The students then work with senior faculty members, the people with the knowledge, and convert this knowledge into content for their multimedia project. The students are responsible for technology, the senior faculty people are responsible for content. The results speak for themselves. Each semester Ms. Kishi has a public showing of the projects, and each semester they get more impressive. Each semester the skills are passed to younger and younger students. At first it was graduate students, the upper level undergraduates, soon freshman. There is no reason that a smart sixth grader can't master the necessary skills. The senior faculty members learn the technical skill from the students, with a much lower investment of their own time.
A significant disadvantage of this program, which was not anticipated, is that students leave the university when they acquire a marketable skill. Many students gain employment on campus, helping faculty, but others leave for outside opportunities, some without degrees. The job marketplace seems to have an appetite for people who can actually do production with multimedia technology.
What can the City Council do to promote multimedia?
July 23, 1996
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