from the fishbowl to the glass house.

While skimming newspapers from the early 1960s for the paper I’m presenting at the upcoming SUNY 60th Anniversary Conference, perhaps the most earth-shattering development lay tucked in the middle of a Palladium-Times article on new student orientation in mid-September 1964:

All students filled out questionnaires for IBM data processing, which should make further improvement in the keeping of records and recording of grades in future semesters.

Even as the article showed how much more psychology-based and calculated student orientation was than even a decade earlier, this tidbit about the data processing still stands out the most. (Well, that and the college bragging that pre-payment of fees speeded registration, with some students able to complete registration in less than an hour … could you imagine a modern student waiting an hour for anything?)

The ever-booming Oswego campus of the ’60s hosted nearly 3,600 students that year — many times its World War II enrollment — so the nascent computerized system was needed to accommodate and track the influx. Now that we’re north of 8,000 students, I couldn’t imagine it flowing without online registration, computerized records and a thousand other authorized tasks we take for granted.

Yet I can’t help but think about a brilliant, and unintendedly prescient, observation by James Burke at the end of his PBS/BBC series The Day The Universe Changed. By mapping the world, he said in 1985 (!), we have mapped ourselves. What started as card questionnaires have turned into datasets that can tell anyone anywhere where we live and work, what kind of car we drive and the repairs to it, what groceries we bought last week and the last dinner out we charged. Cellphone photos and YouTube clips can deliver fame and infamy in the blink of an electronic eye.

Some 45 years ago, we aimed to track students, now we all can be tracked from pole to pole, minute to minute. We used IBM cards to put subjects into fishbowls, now we peer out of our glass houses. Every day in our online lives, we ponder if the line between the personal and the public has blurred; I almost wonder if it has disappeared. However different the styles and lifestyles, transportation and communication from two generations ago, how many things have changed more than the public nature of everything?


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