Ask Anonymous • airCalvin
By Anonymous Bosch

Dear Anonymous,
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?

Concerned neo-Luddite
Luctor, Kan.

Dear Concerned,
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, Wi-Fi-wise?
Yes, in most cases.

2. Is it a good idea to have wireless access in all of these locations?
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 on campus?
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 away?
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.

If John Calvin were alive today . . . 6. Is it a good idea for computers to have a central role in the life of Calvin College?
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 ourselves today.

Sincerely yours,
Anonymous Bosch

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