Tech's a car, plus the place the car goes. Get in and drive

By Bill Buchanan

One afternoon last June, several of us in Information and Educational Technology were sitting around a table, struggling to find the best way to describe SmartSite in 10 seconds or less. Then Chris Sarason said something that went to the heart of what the new system is trying to achieve.

People used to call tech a tool, she said (Sarason manages the ET Partners program, which helps faculty use educational technology). But it's not just a tool anymore. Tech has become a place.

In other words, SmartSite is more than a thing that instructors can use to manage classwork or that students can use for a chat room; it includes the room itself. A space. A place where interactive tech makes certain things possible . . . things not possible in the unwired world.

Sure, that's only a partial description for something as sweeping as technology. Plus, calling tech a place is old news to anyone who already "gets" technology--and kind of woo-woo if you think of tech as just a different way to make a phone call or reheat last night's dinner.

So here's another way to illustrate how tech has morphed: compare it to engines. The kind that probably brought you to work today.

We don't call it the drive-o-sphere--thankfully--but that's what it is

Community used to mean "where you live." Now it includes "where you go." Both phrases used to mean the same thing, because unless you were rich, nomadic or prone to wander, you mostly worked and lived near home.

Cars, jets and a growing economy changed all that. They made it easy for more people to travel. Your world grew, not just by adding square miles to your turf, but by adding all the new things contained in those extra square miles.

And you met people, developed routines and found favorite places in those far-away locations. You gaine d variety. Your definition of community grew to take all that in. You lived in a larger sphere, defined by where you went.

What cars and jets did for travel, high tech is doing for 1) our ability to communicate, and 2) our ability to project and connect our images, beliefs and work, all over the globe. Tech is creating a place--an electronic village, a virtual market, a dark corner, where our projections can talk to each other.

Tech is an online coupe, plus sometimes wherever the coupe takes us. A little weird, but true.

We never named the larger world that Fords and Toyotas created. "Car culture" is as close as we've come. In most of the U.S., carland is a place we understand instinctively. It needs a separate name as much as your left hand needs its own Social Security number.

Virtual isn't physical, but it's real

Anyway, the name isn't the point; the point is the arrival of tech as a place.

When SmartSite creates an online chat room where classmates scattered throughout Davis can meet to discuss a test, it's adding a virtual conference room to their lives. SmartSite and similar systems can add lots of places like that.

Again, old news to the in crowd. But I write this column partly for high tech's new, skeptical or indifferent users--a group I'd guess is rather big on campus, and includes me. People willing to see how tech can help us, but who flinch at the jargon and can't stand technobabble.

Tech is like cars. We don't care about idler arms or struts. But understanding where it can take us? That subject is rich.

Bill Buchanan, a senior writer in IET, edits the IT Times. The views here are his own. Contact: wrbuchanan@ucdavis.edu.