Archive for May, 2012

In the winter of 2012, I began my studies in the graduate level class of JTC 640, Technologies of Public Communication.  On my first day in the class, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the textbook we would be reading was written by Peter B. Seel, a professor in my very own masters program.  Although I had met Pete Seel a few months before and he seemed like a friendly guy, the thought of knowing that the author of my textbook was a few doors down from me seemed a bit intimidating at first.  However, I soon found out that this would not be the case at all, and that this book would soon become one of the most interesting books on communication technologies that I have ever read.

Seel’s Digital Universe takes a very diverse yet concise overview on the origins of many of the communication technologies we use in our everyday lives, shedding some light on events and creations that most people would never even know about.  The first section of Seel’s book delves deeply into the framework and development of what we know as the Internet, particularly analyzing the many different groups that played a part in its development.  From the creative and scientific to the bureaucratic and militaristic, Seel includes accounts from many of the Internet’s early creators to show how these multiple perspectives influenced the course of the ARPANET from an electronic warfare network into a tool for global communication (and arguably, global domination).  Even more interesting is how Seel explores even further back into the history of communication, such as with Morse’s development of wired communication code to connect people miles apart.  Several chapters throughout Digital Universe analyze not only the past origins of technology, but also many of the present and future developments currently taking place.  The idea of convergence in technology is emphasized as a continuing trend, with the notions of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and increasing dependence on digital mobile devices in everyday life as prime predictions for the future.  Seel makes clear how our world is evolving from an analog one to a completely digital environment.

One feature that makes Seel’s book very interesting to read is his use of real events throughout each chapter to illustrate theory in practice.  Some events might be more familiar to readers than others, but all of them are emphasized as being significant in the development and diffusion of communication technologies.  Readers will receive a great taste of technology history, ranging from the 1800s all the way to the 2000s.  Seel also presents many references from pop culture and technology, exploring some of the ideas presented in movies such as The Terminator and Minority Report that, although fictional stories, parallel many of the predictions of technology in society.  Even many of Seel’s own personal accounts, which he documents in nearly all of the chapters, present some very interesting perspectives on the effects of media and the creation of the digital universe.  I found his vignette about observing people in different countries using mobile devices to be very engaging.  Seel’s conversational tone throughout the book kept my attention as I learned about many of the topics, some of which I would find too boring to read by any other author.  In fact, I would be interested to re-read some of the chapters for pure enjoyment as the material is so intriguing.  Through his presentation Seel is able to establish himself not only as an expert in the field, but one who is genuinely interested in all areas of the subject.

Augmented reality and trends towards smaller, mobile devices are presented as predictions of the future in Digital Universe.

Now here’s the graduate student in me coming out.  If there is one criticism (if any) of the book, I would say that while there is a wealth of history and experience presented, there is not enough emphasis on the classical theories of communication.  There are several references to Rogers’ diffusion of innovations, Friedman’s flat world, and Moore’s Law, but to the young graduate student these theories would probably not present themselves outright without some prior theoretical education.  However, there are some interesting critical perspectives presented from scholars such as Ellul, Postman and Barlow which conceptualize digital technologies as taking the form of Utopian landscapes and even deities among mankind, thus leading to technology dominating the Digital Universe.  Despite the lack of emphasis on traditional theory, perhaps this was Seel’s intent with the book: to present the digital world as it has occurred and to let the reader decide what theories suit best to explain these phenomenons.  And besides, to an average reader who is merely looking to explore the digital universe, these theories wouldn’t really matter that much either way.

I would recommend Digital Universe for anyone to read, especially for gadget geeks and techno freaks who love their digital devices.  I must say that this is the first academic book that I actually enjoyed reading from page to page, and I would read it again any day for my own pleasure.  If other scholars can learn from Seel’s work, perhaps education wouldn’t be as boring and people might actually realize just how much of an effect digital technology has had on the world.

Official website for Digital Universe

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Fighting and winning the nation’s wars: that has been the bedrock mission of the military since the foundation of the United States.  The military has undoubtedly been an institution that has spearheaded the defense of the nation in times of conflict.   Service members have willfully volunteered to step up to the call of duty when other have refused.  Many of them are sent to places far from home, operating in the most austere conditions and having to live through bullets flying over their heads.  Many have sacrificed their own comfort and freedom for the benefit of others, and some have even given their lives.  Being on the other side of the fence these days, it is an emotional thing for me to run into a young service member in a public place and to say “thank you for your service,” because in a way those words aren’t nearly enough to describe my gratitude.

However, the military has served our country beyond the scope of war.  In many ways, the fabric of American society is credited much to the technologies that the military has used throughout their operations.  Items such as hiking boots, sleeping bags, hand warmers, saran wrap, aerosol cans, freeze-dried meals, walkie-talkies, nuclear medicine, infrared viewfinders, microwave ovens, and even Roomba vacuums all have their origins from equipment used by the military.   However, there is one invention that I think many people in our society often forget about and take for granted, even though it is a technology that many of us use (and overuse) every day for many purposes: the Internet.

Believe it or not, the Internet has origins embedded deep in military operations.  Originating in the 1970s, the ARPANET was a product of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and was the first functioning network that enabled data exchange through packet switching.  However, at the time this network was not intended for doing the things we do on the Internet today.  Rather, it was designed with the intention of maintaining technological superiority of the United States, as well as forming a command and control network in which military units could exchange information and execute defense operations rapidly.  Pete Seel, a former military photojournalist and a professor of mine, analyzed the evolution of ARPANET in his book Digital Universe, citing many tensions of ideology behind the DoD and the technical engineers who designed ARPANET.  Some argued that the militaristic interface of the Net limited its potential for information and ideas to spread.  This growing tension eventually led to the privatization of Internet access, as well as the evolution of the World Wide Web into a new kind of “public sphere.”  From my personal experience, one type of innovation that I have seen make its way into the civilian world was WiFi.  Wireless internet hotspots and cellular modems have much of their origins from the Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface (CAISI), which was developed in the 1990s.  I was first introduced to this system as a young cadet in 2004 as it made its way into field operations.  The function of the CAISI was to set up a field expedient communication hub in order to reduce the amount of resources used on the battlefield.  When I became a maintenance shop officer a few years later, my maintenance techs used the CAISI to transfer logistics data to higher echelons without the need for a wired LAN.  This device gave them full Internet access everywhere they went.  Not too long afterwards, I began to see cellular MiFi modems available to consumers that served the same function, but 10 times smaller than the CAISI.

Land Warrior System

A soldier equipped with the Land Warrior System

Another system that can be credited for many of the converged gadgets and features seen on smartphones these days is the now defunct Land Warrior System.  This system goes way back to the early 1990s when I was a young brat and went to the Army “family day” events.  The system combined the features of a mobile command post into a portable system that soldiers could wear on the battlefield.  The most prominent features of this system were a satellite radio for communication and a visual display that hooked onto the soldier’s eyewear.  This interface provided real-time information for the soldier, including maps, messages and thermal imaging.  Additionally, a mini video camera also attached to the soldier’s weapon that generated an image into this visual display, allowing the soldier to use his weapon as a viewfinder on the battlefield.  Basically, the Land Warrior System was the precursor to a converged mobile device.  Although the system was cancelled in 2007, many of the features have made their way to the devices we use today.  Mobile phones have integrated the use of maps, GPS, SMS, and cameras onto their platforms.  POV cameras have enhanced the idea of putting a camera on your weapon, placing cameras on just about every other object imaginable.  What’s even more unbelievable is that Google has taken the idea of the visual display and integrated it into consumer eyewear with the Google X Project Glass.  For those who are interested in the story of the Land Warrior System, check it out here.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Even the adult film industry has some origins in the military.  My colleague,Andrew, presented a very interesting study citing the use of 8mm and 16mm film for developing military training videos during World War II.  This kind of technology made its way into the hands of a talented young combat photographer named Russ Meyer.  Meyer eventually left the military and took his video photography skills into the motion picture industry.  Soon, 8mm and 16mm film became the standard for the industry, and Meyer filmed many famous sexually charged films such as Vixen and Faster, Pussycat Kill Kill!  Although not considered pornography according to today’s standards, the images of sexy women and quality production of these films inspired many in the adult film industry to move towards producing big budget adult films to compete in the motion picture industry.  Who would’ve though that porn and the military had a connection eh?

There are many more areas that I could explore that have military origins.  However, I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably become bored by now.  It seems that when it comes to testing and retesting innovative technologies, the military are the best ones to do it as they always test things under the most extreme conditions.  This is also a key concept in the diffusion of innovations into a society.  I imagine that the military will continue to introduce many new innovations year by year.  I see a lot of potential for products such as cell phone jamming devices for consumers who seek privacy, thermal image displays for vehicles, and automated camera/machine gun systems for home security.  We’ll see what emerges next, but for those reading this, I just want to say that when you say “thank you for your service,” you’re thanking the military for a lot more than just defending our nation.