Next year, I’ll be teaching a new undergraduate course, as part of an initiative by the Faculty of Arts and Science known as Big Ideas courses. The idea is to offer trans-disciplinary courses, team taught by professors from across the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, that will probe important ideas about the world from different disciplinary perspectives. For the coming year, U of T is launching three Big Ideas courses:

  • BIG100: “The end of the world as we know it”;
  • BIG101: “Energy: From Fire to the Future”;
  • BIG102: “The Internet: Saving Civilization or Trashing the Planet?”

I’m delighted to be teaming up with Prof Miriam Diamond from Earth Sciences and Prof Pamela Klassen from Study of Religion to teach BIG102. Our aim is to give students some understanding of how the technologies that drive the internet work, and then to explore how the internet has reshaped the way we use information, our knowledge and beliefs about the world, and the impact that creating (and disposing of) internet technologies has on the environment, on the economy, and on the dynamics of innovation. A key goal is to foster critical thinking and information literacy skills, and especially to be able to think about and analyze a complex system-of-systems from different perspectives.

For the first term, we’re planning to cover a broad set of provocative questions, to get students thinking about the internet from different perspectives:

  1. What is a big idea? (A course introduction, and a primer on trans-disciplinary thinking)
  2. Who invented the internet? (Myths about the internet, and why they stick)
  3. How does the internet work? (An introduction to some of the key technologies)
  4. How new is the internet? (A short history of communications technologies, to put the internet in its historical context)
  5. Has the internet changed us? (We’ll explore in particular, how the internet is transforming universities and learning)
  6. What is the environmental footprint of the internet? (An initial assessment of energy consumption, resource extraction, and waste disposal)
  7. Does the internet make us smarter? (An exploration of how internet search works, and how it affects our approaches to problem-solving)
  8. Is the internet a time-saver or time-waster? (How the internet offers endless distractions, blurs distinctions between work and leisure, and its overall effect on productivity)
  9. Can you be anonymous on the internet? (The idea of your information footprint – who’s keeping track of data about you, how they do it, and why)
  10. Is the Internet a Cheater’s Paradise? (From plagiarism to adultery – how the internet facilitates cheating, new ways of discovering it, and virtual vigilante justice)
  11. Who’s Not Online? (The idea of the digital divide, and the demographic and socio-economic factors that limit people’s access)
  12. Gadgets as Gifts? (Just in time for the Christmas break, we’ll explore the environmental impact of our love of new gadgets, and whether there are sustainable alternatives)

In the second term, we plan to pick three themes to explore in more detail, so that we can explore inter-connections between some of these questions, and get the students engaged in independent research projects that synthesize what they’re learning:

  1. The Internet and the Innovation Imperative.
    • Is the Internet Innovative? How Moore’s law has driven innovation; the dotcom boom and bust; and the current hype around new technologies such as 3D printing, sensor networks, and the semantic web.
    • What are the Resource Implications of the Internet? We’ll use material flow analysis to explore extraction and disposal and likely shortages of strategic minerals, and the geo-political implications of attempting to feed an exponential growth in demand.
    • The Environmental and Human Health Burden of the Internet. Building on the discussion of resource implications, we’ll look at the health implications of mineral extraction and e-waste disposal, and the burden this places on people and ecosystems, especially in poorer countries.
    • What is the Opportunity Cost of the Internet? Does investment in internet innovation mean we’re underinvesting in other things (eg clean energy, transport, social innovation). Have we developed an over-optimistic belief that IT technologies can solve all problems?
  2. The Internet, Democracy, and Security.
    • Censorship & Internet Governance. How much power do governments have to control what happens on the internet? Does the internet enhance or undermine democracy?
    • The Underbelly of the Internet: Hackers, Espionage, and Trolls. How internet systems can be exploited by different groups, for example by crime syndicates who break into secure systems, by political groups who use a web presence to spread misinformation, and by internet trolls who violate social norms to disrupt and intimidate online discussions.
    • Does the Internet make us a more open society? The open source movement and its successors (open government, creative commons, etc) are based on the idea that if everyone has access to the inner workings of systems, this removes barriers to participation, fosters creativity, and makes those systems better for everyone. But does it work?
    • Transnational Jurisdiction: Legal boundaries and the Internet. We’ll wrap up this theme with a question about who should police the internet.
  3. The Internet, Communities, and Interpersonal Relationships
    • Does your Google-Brain make you forget? How has instant access to vast amounts of information changed our memories and our perceptions of ourselves? For example, does GPS route-finding mean we lose our ability to navigate and our sense of place? And what are the implications of the kind of personal digital archives that technologies such as Google Glass might allow us to create?
    • Can you find love on the Internet? An exploration of how the internet changes personal relationships, from the role of dating sites and virtual social networks, to the way that online porn affects our perceptions of gender roles and body image.
    • Can you find God on the Internet? How the internet affects religious communities, tolerance of different worldviews, and the very nature of faith.

Of course, this outline is still a draft – we’ll refine it over the next few months as we prepare for the first group of students in September.

We’re still exploring which textbooks to use, and even whether ‘books’ makes sense for a course like this – we’re hoping to make this a constructivist learning experience by using a variety of different internet-based media and information access tools throughout the course.  However, we’re currently evaluating these books:

Feel free to suggest other books and material!

Why Systems Thinking?
Unsustainable

6 Comments

  1. Sounds like an interesting course. Will you be including last year’s Amazon tax avoidance issue from the UK?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/04/amazon-british-operation-corporation-tax

  2. Referring us to Anil Dash presenting on many of these issues… indeed very important.

    http://www.readability.com/articles/k4qnqkb9
    http://dashes.com/anil/2013/04/harvard.html

    Interesting times.

  3. Gavin's Pussycat

    There must be people at Google you want to talk with. With such a theme, there’s no way around Google ;-)

  4. As a cautionary tale,a quick read of Hal Draper’s classic MS Fnd in a Lbry.

    Seriously: suppose the Internet goes “down” for a while (inspecified interval). What do we do that doesn’t work? We used to have maps… In the future, what fraction of human information will actually be in physical books?

    You might take a quick look at Pam Samuelson’s page at UC Berkeley. Take a look at papers and presentations. Somof here (prolif) work might bear on the topics.

  5. re: internet and democracy, the physicist Haim Harari usefully sums up some of the questions here:
    http://www.edge.org/response-detail/23835

    re: the possibilities of greater ‘transparency’ that are sought by groups like the Sunlight Foundation, the second segment of this episode of the NPR show “This American Life” is essential listening:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/495/hot-in-my-backyard

    The claim is made that a carbon tax would be possible if the necessary Republican politicians in the House and Senate could cast their votes anonymously.

    The key point (that seems to escape so many transparency advocates) is that one should never be naive about the relative costs and benefits of transparency.

  6. Marvin Minsky (the father of AI), Ray Kurzweil (Chief Engineer at Google), and I wrote a paper on “The Sensularity” (The Sensory Singularity), http://eyetap.org/papers/docs/IEEE_ISTAS13_Sensularity_Minsky_etal.pdf
    and I think that topic, Veillance (i.e. the balance between surveillance/”gooveillance” and sousveillance) is important to consider in any discussion of the Internet-of-Everything.

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