Tag Archives: Communication technology

Cornell University: The Power Of Social Presence

In 1993, well before West 42nd Street in New York City evolved into the tourist mecca that it represents today, the Disney Corporation placed a long term bet on the enduring power of social presence.

Social presence? Wikipedia calls it “one of the first theories of communication media.” It refers to the extent to which we are aware of the physical existence of others, and it is optimized when we are literally face-to-face with (or, at a minimum, in the same location as) others.

Disney’s traditional emphasis on theme parks and other live forms of entertainment stems from a belief that human interaction is more productive — and, at places like theme parks, more enjoyable as well — when it is conducted in the social presence of others.

That is why Disney officials agreed to restore and use West 42nd Street’s historic New Amsterdam Theatre in the 1990s; they imagined it as a venue for bringing films like The Lion King to live audiences. Its success, of course, helped launch the renaissance of Times Square as a world renowned entertainment district, and thus of New York City as a global cultural center.

From Entertainment To Education

Last summer, in the belief that social presence might be as compelling a factor in the field of higher education as in the world of entertainment, Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited universities with world-class science and engineering programs to develop proposals to establish a “live” campus in New York City.

He offered city-owned space on Governors Island, Roosevelt Island, or the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as up to $100 million in infrastructural improvements at each site. The real draw, of course, was not the land or the infrastructure itself, but rather was the opportunity to establish an academic footprint in the society and culture of the world’s greatest city.

In other words, despite the capability of electronic communication technology to create virtual communities, Mayor Bloomberg was banking on the validity of the theory of social presence to attract a global university to the Big Apple. Nine days ago, Mayor Bloomberg was vindicated, as it become self-evident that social presence theory is as relevant to the education field as it is to the entertainment sector.

Cornell University Emerges Victorious!

Several world-class universities submitted proposals to New York City, including Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, NYU, and Stanford. And all of their proposals contained highly impressive plans, though none was quite as impressive as the one that Cornell submitted in partnership with Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.

The Cornell / Technion proposal promised to launch classes in temporary space next fall, with a move to a newly constructed Roosevelt Island campus within five years. It eventually envisioned a campus with 2,500 students and 280 professors, generating more than $23 billion in overall economic activity for New York City.

The deal-clincher was a $350 million gift from Cornell alumnus Charles Feeney, the co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, to develop the campus. Ronald Ehrenberg, who directs Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute, explained:

“The trustees and the president have long wanted to have a bigger presence in New York City. The notion that you can be a great international university in the 21st century if you’re located in rural upstate New York doesn’t work.”

Nine days ago, as Stanford University surrendered and withdrew from the proposal process, Mayor Bloomberg accepted the Cornell / Technion proposal.

The Inadequacy Of Technology

It is somewhat ironic that Cornell (which has already developed a world renowned medical school in Manhattan) and Technion (which has transformed the Israeli economy with a global technology program that is often compared to Stanford University in Silicon Valley and M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts) believe that they need a physical location in New York City.

After all, although social presence theory states that face-to-face interaction is the ideal method of communication, it also posits that various audio and visual technologies (from text chatting to video phone calls) can be utilized to artificially replicate this level of personal proximity.

Cornell and Technion are certainly among an elite group of universities that are capable of developing new technologies to create a “presence” in New York City from remote locations. And yet both institutions determined that such technologies could not adequately develop the type of social presence that would be generated by a 2,500 student campus.

The Future Of Education

Although we live in an era when web-based communication technologies are ascendant in various industry sectors, adherents of social presence theory have never stopped supporting face-to-face instructional methods. That may be why Facebook founder CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to support live instruction in Newark’s classrooms, and why the Gates Foundation continues to emphasize the need to support “the real work of real teachers in real classrooms.”

It thus appears that live human interaction is not about to go out out of style any time soon. That is indeed one reason why traditionalists can look forward to Cornell’s new Gotham campus in 2012.

Technology’s Future: Bigger Firms and Smaller Products

What is new in the world of technology? Well, the big are growing bigger.

And the small? Just the opposite: they’re growing smaller.

Last week, for instance, Microsoft — the personal computer software giant that is one of America’s few surviving AAA rated non-financial firms — swallowed up Skype for a mammoth price tag of $8.5 billion. Meanwhile, industry titans Facebook and Google continued to escalate their battle in social media, with the embarrassing revelation that Facebook had hired a public relations firm to anonymously smear Google’s privacy policies.

At the same time, in the field of product development, a British foundation called Raspberry Pi in the Cambridge University cluster of technology firms announced the creation of a miniscule (and yet fully functional) $25 computer. Not to be outdone, Google unveiled its trim Chrome Book, designed to provide college students with a web based experience at a modest cost of $20 per month.

Indeed, it does appear that the growing concentration of market power is coinciding with the continuing miniaturization of consumer products. And, interestingly, this pair of trends is echoing throughout other global technology industries as well.

A Group of Goliaths

Every decade seems to produce an American information technology firm that appears to come out of nowhere with an astounding new technology that helps it leap into the ranks of the world’s largest corporations. During the 1980s, for instance, Microsoft and its desktop computer operating system took the world by storm. The 1990s, likewise, gave birth to Google and its internet search engine. And the 2000s witnessed the emergence of Facebook and its milieu of social media.

Like their predecessor Apple in the 1980s, these firms aren’t fading away in the face of emerging competition. Instead, they are expanding and encroaching onto each other’s natural lines of business. And as they do so, they are increasingly challenging each other for market supremacy.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype, for instance, has been characterized as a direct response to Google’s Voice and Talk web-based telephone services. Of course, Google initially launched these services as a direct challenge to the web-based phone offerings of cable television giants like Comcast and Time Warner. And those cable firms, in turn, had previously launched their online telephone services to counter the internet service plans of traditional phone companies like Verizon and AT&T.

What happens when huge and aggressive communication technology firms launch assaults on each other? Things tend to get ugly, as was the case last week when blogger Daniel Lyons, best known for his satirical Fake Steve Jobs web site, broke a news story about a recent Facebook initiative to smear Google’s reputation.

Apparently, Facebook hired the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to plant anonymous stories in the public media about Google’s privacy policies. Burson-Marsteller’s failure to disclose that Facebook was sponsoring the campaign constituted a fundamental breach of professional ethics, one that was roundly condemned by industry experts. Burson-Marsteller eventually acknowledged that they failed to follow standard operating procedure, and Facebook agreed that it failed to present its case in a serious and transparent way.

A Pair of Tiny Products

Ironically, these industry titans are not focusing on creating larger products; instead, they’re intent on producing smaller ones. Google’s Chrome Book, for instance, promises to provide students with a streamlined notebook experience, one that delivers word processing and spreadsheet functionality via Google’s Docs program — itself a stripped-down version of Microsoft’s Office suite of programs.

On an even smaller scale, video game developer David Braben is collaborating with colleagues in the British technology region anchored by Cambridge University to create the world’s smallest computer. Their Raspberry Pi is a flash drive sized device, designed to connect to a keyboard on one end and a video monitor on the other, with the computer itself priced to sell at an incredibly low price of $25.

Is Google, with its corporate hub in America’s Silicon Valley region anchored by Stanford University, about to challenge Raspberry Pi and its industry partners in the Cambridge University Cluster of technology firms? Although the Chrome Book and the Raspberry Pi are not yet battling head-to-head, their common focus on providing highly mobile hardware and software to the education sector may lead to an eventual market clash.

This phenomenon of ever-larger technology firms developing ever-smaller products exists outside of the communication technology sector as well. Global automobile companies such as Mercedes Benz and Tata are designing ever smaller automobiles such as the Smart and the Nano. And power plant manufacturers from General Electric to Toshiba continue to develop miniature, and even portable, nuclear reactors.

Will communication technology firms like Google eventually challenge energy equipment manufacturers like Toshiba and GE? In a sense, they are already doing so; Google is heavily investing in wind farms and other producers of renewable energy. Given these trends, perhaps we can look forward to future showdowns like Google – GE or Google- Exxon, clashes that may make Google – Microsoft look like a minor skirmish!

Vinyl Records: The New Growth Story!

Times are tough in the music business nowadays! Sales of CDs, and of almost all other forms of recorded music, are dropping precipitously. And the live concert business is wilting as well, with entertainers from U2 to Christina Aguilera forced to cancel performances because of low customer demand.

Earlier this month, however, when Billboard reported its annual SoundScan sales totals, one form of recorded music actually reported a significant increase in sales volume between 2009 and 2010. And the size of that increase would have been impressive in any era: 14% on a year-to-year basis!

Even more surprising was the nature of the format that experienced this increase in sales volume. Yes, it was the venerable disk shaped record, a technology that was first introduced in the 1880s and that overtook the phonograph cylinder during the 1920s. Can it now become the growth story of the 21st century?

Spanning The Eras

Before we get too carried away with excitement over the possible resurrection of the vinyl record, it may be worth noting that only 2.8 million long-form vinyl albums were sold in 2010. That’s obviously a miniscule number in comparison to the 440 million long-form recordings that were sold in electronic or other non-vinyl formats; nevertheless, it surprised many analysts who had already assigned the vinyl record to the dustbin of history.

Just as surprising was the broad mix of musical eras that were popular among vinyl purchasers. The top-selling vinyl album was the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road; it was first produced in 1969 in the heart of the vinyl era. The #2 album, though, was issued by Arcade Fire, a band that began performing in 2001. And the #3 album was issued by Radiohead, a band that first emerged in 1985. In other words, the top three vinyl record bands of 2010 actually span the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s!

Although it is true that the 2.8 million vinyl albums that were sold in 2010 represent well under 1% of all long-form recordings issued that year, it is nevertheless evident that the vinyl medium is somehow remaining attractive to a wide variety of age groups. What could be the cause of that attraction? And what might that tell us about the future of paper books and film photography, the other survivors of the media communication industry of the 20th century?

Seeing, Hearing, Feeling … and Even Smelling!

Electronic forms of music are, of course, superior to their predecessors in many respects. They offer much clearer sounds than the imperfect recordings of vinyl and magnetic tape. Their devices are smaller and far more mobile than turntable technologies. And they can easily be copied from one unit to another, a feature that has certainly contributed to their popularity, although they have bred concerns of piracy among record producers.

Fans of vinyl recordings, however, have long treasured the sensory experiences that are embedded in turntable technologies, experiences that are forever lost when one shifts to electronic media. The visual pleasure of gazing at album cover art, the sound of the unique imperfections that personalize each vinyl album, the feel of the dust rag as it sweeps across the face of the record – and even the smell of a long-forgotten album sleeve pulled out of a musty cover – are, in the minds of some dedicated fans, well worth the inconveniences of the medium.

Some may scoff at such individuals, but they do have a valid point; namely, that the sensory experiences of vinyl albums are indeed qualitatively different than those of electronic recordings. It should come as no surprise, then, that certain individuals would derive more pleasure from older vinyl media than from newer electronic ones.

Paper and Film

So what may the resurgence of vinyl records teach us to expect from the other main forms of 20th century communication media? Such as paper books, for instance? And film photography?

Bibliophiles may take heart from the surge in vinyl record sales; after all, an old book does convey a visual, a tactile, and even an aromatic experience that is far more distinctively sensual than an e-book that is loaded on an Amazon Kindle or an Apple iPad. Although e-books might indeed grow to dominate the book industry some day, there will always likely be readers who will prefer to crack open the spine of a hard cover classic than to download the corresponding pixels from a web site.

Film photography, though, is a different matter. The sensory experience of clicking the shutters on a film camera is no different than pressing the button on a digital camera. Furthermore, the visual pleasure that one experiences when viewing a digitally generated image is the same as what is felt when viewing a filmed image. Because there aren’t any noticeable differences in the sensory experiences of producing and accessing digital and film images, consumers have no reason to maintain their allegiances to the older technology.