I recently read on the Calvin College Web site that there are now many
places on campus for students, staff and faculty to make use of wireless
access to the Calvin computer network and to the Internet. Here is part
of that notice:
Calvin Information Technology is excited to offer Calvin faculty,
staff and students secure wireless network access in a growing number
of locations on campus. Unfortunately, guests of Calvin College are
not able to connect to airCalvin at this time. Printing is
also unavailable on airCalvin.
airCalvin Wireless Locations
• Johnny’s and the Fish House
• Hekman Library and Lobby
• Spoelhof Coffee Shop
• DeVries Hall Atrium
• DeVos forum and Communications Center
• Residence hall lobbies and basements
• KE apartment study rooms and lounges
• KE courtyard and Rho and Tau apartments
• Rooks-Van Dellen (pilot site)
• Curriculum Center
• Seminary common areas
Is this a good idea?
It’s always good to hear from a Luddite, neo- or otherwise, and
frankly I’m surprised that I didn’t hear from you and your
kind a long time ago — say, in the mid-1980s, when personal computers
first began to appear on Calvin’s campus. A decade later, computer
terminals had become ubiquitous on campus, not to mention omnipresent,
and Calvinists had already discovered the brave new world of the Internet;
indeed, they had already visited, explored and described that world, and
had even written articles, essays and books about it.
Today, in 2006, 20 years on, it’s hard for most people at the
college to remember life before the computer or, for the younger crowd,
to imagine what life could possibly be like without word processing, databases,
e-mail, Facebook.com and Google.
But your question is an enticing one, if only because it is so multifaceted.
“Is this a good idea” can be read in so many ways that no
single column could begin to provide an answer. But let me tease apart
some of the threads that make up this question, in an attempt to see the
larger pattern in the carpet, at least provisionally.
1. Is it a good idea to keep college guests out of the loop,
Yes, in most cases.
2. Is it a good idea to have wireless access in all of these
No; here are two problems, as yet unaddressed. Wireless access at Johnny’s,
at the Seminary, at the Spoelhof Coffee Shop and in the dorm lobbies makes
it ever more likely that places that were meant to be communal gathering
sites are increasingly likely to be populated mainly by isolated members
of a deliberately lonely crowd. We find it hard enough to find common
cause with fellow humans without establishing new ways to keep ourselves
separate in our private technological cocoons.
Moreover, notice what parts of campus are not at present wireless. Who
is set to benefit from the flickering images, and who is left out in the
technologically old and cold?
3. Is it a good idea to make wireless access available to students
Yes — if the rest of the package is acceptable or even
necessary, why not make access to such materials and services as widespread
as possible? There is, of course, the nasty little question of economic
disparities: Some can afford to buy laptops, and others can’t. But
those who can afford such computers shouldn’t be forced to go to
Starbucks or the Wealthy Street Bakery in order to enjoy the benefits
of Wi-Fi access. And doesn’t Wi-Fi — wireless fidelity —
have a vaguely reassuring ring to it?
4. Is it a good idea for the college to have the entire world
of the Internet available to it, no more than one or two mouse-clicks
Yes, mainly. To quote on old Calvinist, “I cannot praise a fugitive
and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies
out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race.”
5. Are there any further benefits to be realized?
Indeed. For one thing, the vocabulary of this phenomenon is
immensely entertaining. I’ve already mentioned “wireless fidelity,”
surely a sign of the times. Do I also need to mention “wireless
bleed,” “encryption,” “Internet café,”
“interoperability,” “default setting” and “router”?
More lexical amusements are at hand.
Is it a good idea for computers to have a central role in the life of
Maybe, although it has become increasingly difficult to discover
just what that role has become over the last 20 years. Very few people
at Calvin today write much of anything without the direct or indirect
assistance of the computer, and that is at best a mixed blessing. Indeed,
some folks claim that it is unusual, but not impossible, to find a professor
reading a book in his or her office today — that is, reading a real
text printed on paper and bound between covers for convenience, portability
and durability. It’s much more common to find faculty members staring
at a glowing cathode-ray tube, and some find this new default setting
vaguely disturbing. Most students have a great portion of their college
and personal lives mediated to them via that same tube, and almost no
office at the college gets its work done entirely free of the computer.
7. Is it a good idea to have so much of our daily reality mediated
to us via that tube?
Probably not. It is possible to connect to the vast information
of the Net and to the vast numbers of people there, but to do so in such
a way that one’s isolation is almost perfectly maintained. There
is something odd but increasingly ordinary about technologies that connect
us to everyone but keep us alone. These isolating technologies join with
an almost pathological need to stay in constant contact with people, providing
a sense of control alongside the need to connect, even though other people
tend to be among the most uncontrollable features of the real world. Perhaps
a good college education could help us make sense of how we are developing
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