What is a…

There is a great deal of discussion about the future of higher education, the future of libraries, the future…

Many of these discussions offer speculations about what will happen in the future, based largely on trends in technology, economics, and the culture at large.  As Clive Thompson pointed out in WIRED a few weeks ago, predictions like these may prove particularly fanciful when they extrapolate broad cultural changes from technology trends, overlooking how interpersonal relations (and social institutions) function.

Will the ebook kill off the print book?”

Every time I hear that question, I think about the “paperless office.” Back in the ’80s, the rise of word processors and e-mail convinced a lot of people that paper would vanish. Why print anything when you could simply squirt documents around electronically?

We all know how that turned out. Paper use exploded; indeed, firms that adopted e-mail used 40 percent more paper. That’s because even in a world of screens, paper offers unique ways to organize and share your thoughts, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper noted in The Myth of the Paperless Office. There’s also this technology truism to consider: When you make something easier to do, people do more of it. Now that every office worker has access to a computer and a printer, every office worker can design and distribute elaborate multicolor birthday flyers and spiral-bound presentations.

Thompson’s article is about the way print on demand will change the way printed books work, rather than helping the e-book replace the printed tome.  It’s worth reading for a bit of counterintuitive, but reasonable, extrapolation.

But from this example I want to suggest a feature of the site called “What is a…” where we explore the prominent features of prominent institutions, e.g. what is a university, what is a library, what is a book.  The purpose here will be to describe, on the one hand, how that institution works on the inside, what makes it tick, who the major stakeholders and actors are within it, etc. As it undergoes changes, understanding these factors will help us to both predict and hopefully guide that institution through its internal permutations and demands.

On the other, it will be to consider the social functions that institution carries out in all their complexity.  By this I don’t just mean its stated function, but what it actually does: a social realism of sorts. For instance, a university is a key institution in the labor market, not only because it provides students with credentials, but because it keeps those students out of the official labor market for 3-6 years, reducing the number of full-time workers looking for employment AND it often employs students directly, through work study programs.

I have no illusions about being able to do this about any given institution in a single post, but by creating a series of “What is…” posts on any institution (updating it, especially, when relevant stories highlight a social function or internal constituent we had so far failed to identify) we should be able to round out that profile significantly.

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