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The Northern Spy
Sept 2004

School's In

Rick Sutcliffe

Seen In Passing

Almost in time for class opening, the long awaited iMac G5 has now been announced for a mid-September ship date. The hemispherical base of the previous iteration is gone, and all the electronics are now housed inside the 17- or 20-inch LCD screen unit. Nifty.

Perhaps the one indispensable program on the Macintosh platform is Bare Bones Software's HTML and text editor BBEdit. The company has now released the next major version (8.0) with many new features and enhancements. Since every serious programmer or web site author has the program already, the Spy need only mention that updates from 7.x are $49.

A recent FileMaker bragogram claims a total of 10 million sales of the Apple subsidiary's flagship database program, currently in its seventh major version. Of note is that Apple's productivity software includes first class database and mail programs yet sells junior applications over the rest of the standard suite (Appleworks). Redmond, OTOH, has the opposite: high end word processing (not our favourite bloatware) and spreadsheet (still the best application ever), a dangerous mail program, and a cheap, clumsy, toy database they can't be bothered fixing or porting. Go figure.

Lessons learned

Poor financial results and shaky investor relations appear to be about to pull the plug on all things SCO. Look for what's left of the company, if one can call it that, to go under sometime in the next year. It can't happen too soon.

Meanwhile, the fraudsters are up to their dirty tricks again. Combining expensive 900-area charge-em calling scams with spyware, they've come up with a scheme to trick people into downloading software that automatically dials such numbers via the modem and rack up charges against the old telephone bill. Sorry telcos, but the whole practice of these automatic billing numbers was a bad idea from the start and it's past time to end it.

Worth taking note

Team H.E.L.P., sponsored by Arjay Web Services, an associate company of The Northern Spy, recently defended its British Columbia pool lifeguarding championship, taking the prestigious Barnsley Shield for the second straight year. Go team!

Back to the future university

The Spy has long bemoaned the lack of professionalism in the computing industry. Hardware is unoriginal, faulty, and prone to early failure. Software is poorly planned, arrives on the market late and full of bugs, has bad documentation and worse support, and never seems to do the job it's purchased for. The programming behind many web sites looks like its written by a ten year old with her first toy computer, its only redeeming feature that it contains too few lines of code to require either explanation or documentation.

Programmers themselves too often match the stereotype of the nearly illiterate hacker who speaks only to her computer, can't plan better than a politician, and couldn't read her own code a week later if her life depended on it.

Since the Spy's day job is as a professor of computing science, he obviously believes a university trained programmer is inherently better than one who takes a course in the corner college over Joe's garage or cribs other people's code but never has a creative thought of her own. Why should (there are no absolute guarantees) a B.Sc. in computing science or software engineering produce a better programmer? Let's start by answering the question

What is a University, anyhow?

Ah Nellie, nice to see you again. Thought my comments might bring you out of the woodwork.

If one conflates historical with modern practice, a university is a community Liberal Arts, Sciences, and Professional Studies institution. Its core enterprise is therefore academic: the development, transmission, and application of knowledge. Traditionally, this included research, teaching, self knowledge/character development, and community service.

That is, the academy operates society's metalibrary (the whole storehouse of knowledge, together with all techniques for acquiring, archiving, accessing and applying it).

In any specific context, this central academic task is energized, complemented, and further contextualized by numerous other activities without which it could not succeed. However, while a university may do student services, parking, food, housing, security, fund raising, PR, maintenance, and building construction, it is none of those things. Rather, they all serve the central academic mission.

But neither can one merely say "A university is the faculty", for the academy is a dynamic knowledge community where all are learners. A more accurate oversimplification (if one must) might be, "It's the students", or "It's the knowledge".

The addition of professional schools in more recent times skewed the old model toward job market orientation. This had pragmatic advantages, but tended to replace the study of knowledge with one of technique. The narrow specialization characteristic of Third Civilization machine age likewise shifted the emphasis (rather heavily) from education to training. After all, those who paid the bills came to expect return benefits, so government, military, and industrial interests often influence if not dictate research and learning outcomes. Both these trends were especially marked at colleges.

However, in the Fourth Civilization Information Age, one need not, should not, specialize so deeply and narrowly as in the third, for the modern professional is not so much a repository for raw information, but a wielder of the meta-techniques for locating, adding value to, applying, and communicating knowledge. These meta tasks fit more closely the traditional Liberal Arts model rather than the narrowly focused speciality schools of the last age, for the New Renaissance professional is not so much an deep expert in facts as she is a well-integrated widely-educated problem solver.

It's also important to note that members of every community (not just universities) work within a worldview framework. For the secular institutions most schools eventually became, this meant their fundamental presuppositions combined a materialist philosophy approaching logical positivism, a nominally empirical methodology, a liberal-socialist view of the surrounding society, a postmodern view of verity, and ostensibly agnostic values, paradoxically coupled with a deep-seated hostility toward supernatural and/or religious ideas. None of these assumptions could be found spelled out in institutional catalogues. Rather, they were elaborated through strict research and publication controls and via classroom content.

As a spate of books in more recent times (The Closing of the American Mind, Profscam, and others) pointed out, these and related presuppositions, useful as they sometimes seemed, imposed their own intellectual straitjacket, hindered free enquiry, discriminated heavily against dissenters, narrowed education to training, and served more to indoctrinate into majoritarian academic and societal control beliefs than to inform honest enquiry.

Working within such constraints also undermined the claim to objective empiricism, for in such institutions knowledge workers are not free to choose their own research program, pursue it freely, or to publish just any results. Moreover, the same presuppositions meant they must eschew the traditional academy's character development task, for they had made it impossible to define good character without exposing paradoxical views on values.

Some professionals learned their lessons well, accommodating and incorporating the control beliefs as if revealed gospel, particularly in politics, law, education, and journalism. Others chafed under intellectual, funding, and other restraints that channelled research into areas the establishment found either safe or politically correct. Still, the liberal-secular university produced what the pragmatic machine age thought it wanted--skilled specialists to ensure its automatons maintained the flow of material goods to support the good life, and compliant professionals who wouldn't rock the majoritarian boat.

Meanwhile, the few institutions of higher learning that were explicitly religious in worldview had difficulty establishing their credentials, because their intellectual work was done within a non-majority mental framework. Moreover, those that over-promoted student development or other activities at the expense of the core academic mission risked becoming the very low-grade institutions secular academics accused them of being. However Christian liberal arts and sciences schools (to use a North American example) were at least frank about the boundaries they set on free enquiry.

Indeed, if they performed spiritual/character development within the academic context where it belonged instead of promoting it to equal or greater separate status, they not could not only retain their integrity as legitimate academies, they could even claim more faithful and holistic adherence to centuries-old tradition than could their liberal secular competitors.

Universities of both types exist in a tension between freedom of enquiry and faithfulness to institutional/social paradigms, between external and personal knowledge development, between education and training, and between activities that serve the institution's own end and those benefiting the broader community.

In the fourth civilization, and in common with all other social institutions, universities face a sea change. If tenders of automotons are needed at all, the machines are of an entirely different kind. At some point in the new reality, every institution must become more open to ideas competing with the old reigning paradigms. The fourth civilization has new ones.

Moreover, the liberal "end-of-history" euphoria following the demise of the Soviet Union has been thoroughly debunked in the broader marketplace of ideas by the sheer force of events. It's now clear that the underlying philosophical assumptions of the machine age university had a similar self-satisfied and immature aspect. They weren't the final answer, for human beings can never know their knowledge to be complete.

Specifically, if universities are to avoid becoming irrelevant, they will at least have to revise their presuppositions, curriculum, and methodologies to meet new societal realities.

At the same time, the demise of the end-of-academic-history mindset may result in better recognition for schools that publish their belief and behaviour standards upfront instead of enforcing them via hidden institutional mechanisms. Ironically, secular institutions have nowhere to re-learn the Liberal Arts model than from the sometimes despised sectarian schools who've preserved and honed the traditional ways and may in some respects be better prepared to take on the new age.

At the least, broadly-based university education seems poised to make a comeback, and could become freer than ever from artificial intellectual restraints. If information is the fourth civilization's currency, and knowledge the university's stock in trade, the academy seems poised to become the central institution for the new society, the treasure house and clearinghouse for all its valuables. In theory it is better equipped for the role of Metalibrarian than any other institution we've invented.

What has this to do with Computing and IS?

Glad you asked, Nellie, but surely it's obvious. CS/IS departments will play the central role in the university of the future, for it is they who develop, hone, and teach the very meta techniques for knowledge mining, recognition, representation, storage, and transmission upon which all society's institutions depend, most especially the university. Just as mathematics has been the language, the enabler, the integrator for science, so will CS/IS for the totality knowledge pursuits.

Because the sheer amount of information needed for any one profession forces practitioners to be as conversant with knowledge technique as with facts, the academy that trains and/or educates those professionals must also become expert with automated knowledge techniques. Computing and information sciences bring to the academy the means necessary to fulfil its role as Metalibrarian to the fourth civilization.

Thus, forget the stereotype of the computerist as illiterate, cubical-bound, antisocial nerd (along with that of scientists as mad). Those who provide both the broader new society and its academies with the tools and techniques to conduct the knowledge trade must be well-educated, literate, skilled communicators with excellent interpersonal relationships, adept in knowledge manipulation, and skilled multi-lingual practitioners of a craft better described in artistic-engineering terms than mere programming. Perforce, they must obtain broad knowledge of many disciplines in order to re-tailor their colleagues' specific craft to encompass the new academic meta techniques.

More specifically, they cannot be mere unilingual hackers in the trendy notation of the day, for such jobs vanish on the shifting winds of change. Rather they must be adept problem solvers, masters and mistresses of disparate techniques with which they both dynamically synthesize multi-disciplinary solutions while continuously reinventing their own profession. Far from the white-coated high priests tending the mystical machines of their late industrial origin, they are the true inheritors of leadership in a society that owes its coherence to the Metalibrary.

Will you ever get to the point of this sermon, Professor?

Surely, Nellie. Take society's poor, its huddled masses, its men and women bound to the stultifyingly narrow and mediocre chains of the machine age. Give them to one of the new universities, one whose community understands the era. Teach them language and literature, history and ethics, business and fine arts, physics and philosophy, mathematics and music, sociology and values, and yes, computing science, among other things. Make of them excellent, literate, well-rounded problem solvers, multifaceted New Renaissance men and women of good character and excellent practice. You will give them not only a rich, satisfying, and secure career, but the means to shape, not merely the academy and industry, but the whole new society.

Oh, and one more thing. Go a kilometre beyond Lazarus Long's manifesto*. Send them to Trinity Western University. We'll attempt all the above in the context of a thoroughly Christian mindset and worldview. After all, some values matter beyond this life.

--The Northern Spy

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree format from Bowker's Booksurge.

NOTE: The terms Metalibrary, Fourth Civilization, New Renaissance, and others, were first exposited in a series of articles appearing in this and others of Rick Sutcliffe's columns in the early 1980s. A full explanation can be found in "The Fourth Civilization-- Technology Society and Ethics" which is available at the URL noted below.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

The Fourth Civilization (text): http://www.4civ.com/

Heinlein and Sutcliffe: http://sheaves.org/sheavings/thecompleatchristian.html

TWU: http://www.twu.ca

TWU Computing Science: http://www.csc.twu.ca/

Apple's new iMac: http://www.apple.com/imac/

Bare Bones Software (BBEdit):http://www.barebones.com/products/bbedit/

Filemaker: http://www.filemaker.com/

SCO Losses:http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104-5230202.html

Team H.E.L.P.:http://www.teamhelp.ca

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08