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How iPhones Are Changing the World

March 19, 2012

It’s hardly a secret that technology has had a transformative effect on society. Smartphones, the Internet, the blogosphere, social networking and countless other breakthroughs have profoundly changed the way people work, play, learn, communicate and interact.

But the interconnection between technology and society is not a modern development. In her course, Understanding Technology in Society (Sociology 111), Deborah Gambs, a professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Human Services, takes students back to the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution.

“The idea is to provide students with a broader social context for thinking about the technologies they use on an everyday basis.” she says. “I want them to think about technology and science differently than they have before.”

A matter of time

Problem-solving and hands-on projects figure importantly in the curriculum. During one recent class, James Brown gave a presentation on the evolution of timepieces, from primitive gnomons and sundials through analog and digital clocks and watches.

“Today’s timepieces are much more practical and precise than sundials, which worked only in daylight, weren’t portable, and couldn’t represent time in increments of minutes and seconds,” he said.

More significantly, watches and clocks today are everywhere, “reflecting the importance of time—and measuring time—in every area of our lives.”

For Naeem Anula, the course has been an eye-opener, giving him an understanding “of what technology is and where it came from.”

Without a clear sense of where technology came from and what life was like before iPhones and iPads, he says, “we’d be lost. Or, to put it another way, if we don’t learn from history, we’ll wind up repeating it.” Anula started out as a science major, but later switched to Liberal Arts.

Now he’s thinking about switching back.

“I did a presentation recently on the NASA biocapsule—an amazing technology that can diagnose and treat astronauts who get sick during space missions and would also have potential applications on Earth,” he says. “It’s incredibly interesting—but if it hadn’t been for this course, I wouldn’t have known about it. Now I’m thinking it might be a field I could work in.”

Tracing the roots of mass media

Gambs’s course draws students from a wide range of majors and academic interests—not just science and sociology. For example, Art History major Nathaniel Buckholz is primarily interested in the development of printing and printmaking, “the first real mass media,” he says. “The earliest advances in printing made it possible for the first time to reliably spread the same message across geographic areas and reach large populations.”

Of course, while technology has been a powerful force for progress, it is not without it dark side. A case in point: the growth of personalization, defined as the use of technology to tailor Internet content to individual interests and buying behavior.

“Websites and web-based businesses use algorithms to track a user’s activity on line—the sites you visit, the stories you read, the things you buy,” Cristobal Guerra noted in a recent in-class presentation.

“Personalization can be a good thing by making it easier to shop for the things you need and get the information you want. But it also creates a filter by filtering out a lot of information that might be relevant to your life.”

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