Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Chris Hildreth

Technologies and practices once heralded as innovations have lost their novelty. A network of magnetic strips, fiber-optic cables, and to-go dining establishments keeps Duke students running from day to day.

ise at 7:30 to roommate's PC-driven alarm clock. Check e-mail. Dress. Finish writing Chinese characters for 9:10 section. Forget to take DukeCard from yesterday's pocket. Review Mandarin grammar on bus from East to West Campus. Attend section. Take bus back to West. Stop by Perkins to perform online search for articles relating Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Stop at phone in Perkins foyer to call ACES--the automated course registration system--and straighten out courses for next semester. Grab a bagel in the express line at Alpine Bagels in the C.I. Duck downstairs and add money to flexible spending account at DukeCard office. Move hurriedly down Bryan Center walkway. Enter cafe, check e-mail on trendily-labeled "cafemail" terminal. Attend art history lecture. Grab a Cosmic Cantina burrito to go at the Rathskeller. Wait five minutes at dorm entryway for passerby with swipe-capable DukeCard. Check e-mail. Shove laptop into bookbag, head back to Perkins for further sustained paper-writing.

Attend 7:00 evening seminar on Thucydides. Forage for food at 9:30, after most campus eateries have closed. Return to dorm, order sub from Jimmy John's using "food points." Plug in laptop, check e-mail. Activate AOL Instant Messenger to see whether any friends from other schools are "on." End up having thirty-minute, typed conversation with a friend, whose window I can see from my own, about how we never see each other anymore. Interrupt computer conversation to pick up telephone--Jimmy John has arrived. Desperately look for cash to tip delivery guy (a difficult task since I don't normally keep any on me during the week). Find six quarters, descend stairs, sign for sandwich, and give quarters to delivery guy. Receive dirty look. Finish online conversation while eating sandwich, being careful not to get lettuce caught between keys of laptop.

Consult planner about tomorrow's schedule. Realize there's no possible way to get everything done before then. Run frantically to Bryan Center cafŽ, hoping not to have missed the midnight closing. Buy coffee with DukeCard. Ingest caffeine. Return to room, go on state-theory reading spree for tomorrow's seminar. E-mail mom to let her know I'm doing fine. Fall asleep on futon at 3 a.m., book in hand, laptop close by. Rise at 7:30 to roommate's alarm. Tuesday.

At Duke, we have been given an infrastructure of velocity and have created a culture to go with it. Technologies and practices once heralded as innovations have lost their novelty. What remains is a network of magnetic strips, fiber-optic cables, and to-go dining establishments that keeps Duke students running from day to day. This state of affairs is no accident: Each of the services and products I, like most Duke undergrads, use every day was put there for my convenience. The same student-oriented administrators who brought us Alpine Bagels and the online library catalogue may soon offer us twenty-four-hour gyms and restaurants. I wonder, though, does this instant accessibility, as pervasive as it is convenient, come at a price?

Photo: Les Todd

The story behind my typical Monday began in 1985. Joe Pietrantoni, the newly-appointed director of auxiliary services, had a vision. Duke meals were then accessible using electronic cards and readers furnished by a small regional company. Library checkout required another card. A third ID badge was necessary for entry into campus athletic facilities. Washers and dryers took a fourth.

Enter the Phoenix, Arizona-based Harco Industries. At the time, it was a magnetic-strip and door-lock company, without even a single college contract. Together with Pietrantoni and his staff, it built the DukeCard--the nation's first comprehensive college card system. "We sat down with everybody we thought would be interested," says Pietrantoni, "and we asked, 'What if we had an electronic mechanism that could record transactions--either access, like door locks, or financial? And what if this system were online, and it were infallible? That is, you can't make a mistake since there are telephone lines running to and fro to pick up those transactions. And what if that data could be converted into managerial intelligence?'' The result was an 800-page document outlining possible uses for an electronic card, from student-government voter registration to Cameron Indoor Stadium basketball game access.

One by one, these dreams have become realities. There are now more than 800 DukeCard readers on campus, which register, during a given twenty-four-hour period, some 300,000 transactions. Just last year, Duke Medical Center, which, according to Pietrantoni, had been "watching the card from a distance for years," outfitted each of its 15,000 members with a card. No card readers are active there yet, but, soon, employees will be able to buy soft drinks from vending machines on payroll deduction--just like Duke undergrads do through their (typically) parent-financed dining accounts. With each swipe comes a piece of data, and these data are constantly analyzed and processed in search of greater and greater returns, or "throughput," as Pietrantoni calls it.

What might be called the "DukeCard mentality" signals the expectation of instant gratification. The urge we feel on campus to have anything and everything available at the swipe of a plastic card is the same interest in convenience that drove the development of the card itself. When that swipe occurs, the total due is instantly transferred from a student's account to that of dining services, Domino's Pizza, or the Duke textbook store. When a holder loses her card, she need only notify the attendant working the twenty-four-hour DukeCard office, and it is instantly canceled. If I need to add money to my account, I simply hand over a check and its equivalent in "points" instantly appears in the system.

The other side of the DukeCard mentality is a constant desire to consume. The act of swiping, in a sense, turns experiences as basic as borrowing library books and entering dormitories into acts of consumption. And the fact that each undergraduate living on West Campus holds a card wired to a dining account of at least $1,145 a semester (known casually as "food points" or just "points") creates a pervasive attitude of "it's-not-money-it's-only-points."

The link between convenience and consumption is one that is systematically exploited by the card's creators. Pietrantoni cites an early illustration of this: "Coca Cola put thirteen vending machines in dormitories and measured sales with quarters over a thirteen-week period one fall semester. Then they took the same period a year later and saw what would happen when vending came at the convenience of the card. Transactions went up over 400 percent." With this increase in "throughput," Duke gains bargaining power, which it used in this case to demand a higher commission. The card has become a source of revenue.

The next piece of my Monday puzzle came about in the late 1980s. In an effort to raise revenue and satisfy student demands, Duke shifted from self-operated toward privatized and non-traditional eateries. During the 1998-99 academic year, excluding the first-year East Campus board plan (which requires first-year students to have twelve meals a week in the East Campus Union's Marketplace), just 35 percent of the $16,641,000 spent on food at Duke went to dining "self-op" establishments. The other 65 percent includes $1.8 million in off-campus deliveries made using food points, $1.1 million in vending-machine purchases, and $2.3 million in purchases from on-campus, privately operated establishments.

Duke students are the envy of their peers as far as food is concerned. Privatization and merchants-on-points arrangements have allowed for a degree of variety and quality unknown to many collegians. But what has become of the communal dining experience, which for centuries had been a focal point of academic life? "Your generation is so different from mine," says Pietrantoni. "I went to college and they said, 'Joe, you will eat from five to seven, right here.' And I was there at 5:15. I didn't even give it a second thought. If I force you into a cafeteria, you are mad at me because I didn't give you what you wanted. What dining experience are you going to get out of being mad? I've got to give you freedom of choice. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, think of a product you want, and we'll get it for you. Maybe you'll bond better under that kind of freedom."

Too often, though, the shift from institutionally prepared mashed potatoes and green beans to Alpine Bagels sandwiches and Han's Fine Chinese Cuisine accompanies a shift from cafeteria tray to Styrofoam to-go carton. The DukeCard hasn't found a way to measure it yet, but the number of students who actually take a break to eat and talk with others is dwindling. Foam cartons are not uncommon sights in computer clusters and library study rooms, and deliveries on points enable students to meet their nutritional needs without ever having to leave their rooms.

For Sue Wasiolek '76, M.H.A. '78, LL.M. '93, assistant vice president for student affairs, the phenomenon of take-out from the Oak Room --the only campus eating establishment with wait-service--epitomizes this trend. "Alums of fifteen to twenty years ago don't believe me when I tell them that our students get Oak Room to-go, because that was the real heart and soul of the Oak Room experience--sitting there and enjoying company, conversation, and good food. But to take that good food and go to a computer cluster, or a library, or back to your dorm room--and to think that a student of today is going to have a fond memory of that years from now--is absurd."

Photo: Chris Hildreth

For Wasiolek, this all comes back to a fundamental dichotomy in values. "The academic community values certain things, and those certain things may not be consistent with what I'll call a market-driven society. And to a certain extent today, universities have to be mindful of the market. This is a community that relies on a successful recruitment process. And part of recruiting new members to this community, whether they're students or faculty, is to recognize what those folks expect and need, and to provide it. On one hand, we're a community of scholars and thinkers. On the other, we're a community of individuals who expect a certain level of service. We need to keep these things in balance."

Something that's increasingly basic to individual expression--and to community identity--is electronic mail. In 1992, the Office of Information Technology issued every Duke student an e-mail account on its "acpub" server. Seven years later, not a day during the academic year goes by without 300,000 messages generated. In Wasiolek's opinion, the general preference of the Duke community has shifted from print to electronic correspondence. And with that shift comes a lot of speed, much convenience, and a problem or two.

The first thing anyone needs to know about e-mail at Duke is its pervasiveness. There is currently a network "ethernet" hook-up for every bed space in the residential system. There are twenty-four public computer clusters scattered across campus. There are solitary e-mail terminals in high-traffic areas, including the Bryan Center cafŽ and several East Campus commons rooms. Last year, a transmitter was placed in a Crowell Quad window, providing wireless e-mail access for the laptop-owning denizens of "Krzyzewskiville"--the tent city that forms outside Cameron in anticipation of big basketball games.

Rare is the student who checks his or her e-mail less than five times a day. Oceans can't keep Duke students from the acpub system: Since telnet will allow a connection from almost any web-capable computer, Dukies studying in Oxford, Beijing, and La Paz can all be reached through their Duke e-mail accounts. E-mail serves a nearly infinite variety of purposes. From the listserves (university-facilitated e-mail lists, such as duke-ski@ duke.edu, or kappa@duke.edu), which have come to function as a sort of marker of legitimacy for student organizations, to the impromptu lists of friends and family used by students eager to forward on jokes or transmit news of their travels abroad, electronic correspondence is now commonplace.

E-mail's convenience has made it universal. Ease of communication, however, doesn't mean quality of communication, and "convenient" quickly translates into "inescapable." What happens, for example, when e-mail mediates interactions in other domains--emotional, academic, or romantic? Noah Pickus, assistant professor of public policy, says that e-mail has put him in touch with a greater number of his students, but it has actually decreased the number that come to see him during office hours. Maria Fackler '01, an English major who last semester took professor Reynolds Price's legendary Milton class, laments that "class participation" in this context referred not only to her participation in class discussions, but her submissions to an electronic conversation about Paradise Lost.

Some view e-mail in a more positive light. Ron Butters, professor and director of undergraduate studies in English, says, "I think I see more students now in my office than I did before because they are more willing to make appointments with me over e-mail. Or I can e-mail a student and say, 'Hey, you did really poorly on this exam, and I think you ought to come see me,' and that somehow makes more of an impact than just writing it in red ink at the top of the page."

Most of the difficulties that arise from campus e-mail exchanges point to the fact that we as a society have yet to construct mores for the use of the medium. Jeff Horwich '99, one of the creators of Devilnet, a campus online community, sees e-mail as "an extended real-time conversation" with the expectation of a prompt response. Many others have been known to let messages sit unanswered for weeks. Wasiolek is reluctant to let such an expectation entirely shape her life. "Communication," she says, "in order for it to be meaningful, needs to involve a certain level of effort. E-mail is just a bit too effortless. And therefore I question how meaningful it is, or how much value I should place on it."

Scholars and writers have been debating for the last several years whether e-mail or, more generally, word-processing changes the nature of the writing process. Sven Birkerts, who issued a dire forecast for the future of reading in his 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies, argues passionately that it has. In a February New York Times article, he writes, "I never see a sentence with a semicolon in it anymore. We tend to read the prose of the age, and the prose of the age, influenced by the ethos of electronic communication, is almost overwhelmingly flat, punchy, and declarative....The fact that there are floods of five-line communiquŽs going back and forth between the circuits has little to do with the health of the language. Have we added anything to the world if a lot more people are dashing off written things in the key of casual conversation?"

Butters calls this bunk. "People are not stupid," he says. "People know what different registers of communication are. I think the biggest problem with e-mail is not that it's affecting other kinds of writing, but that nobody quite knows how to use e-mail yet because it's a new medium. Nobody knows what the ground rules are. But it isn't tearing over into other dimensions any more than watching movies causes students to use bad grammar. And that's a professional linguistic opinion as much as a gut feeling. People know that you write differently than you speak."

Photo: Chris Hildreth

With the volume of e-mail that Duke students confront daily, each message receives less than complete attention. I can attest to this from personal experience. As I was preparing to leave for a spring break trip to London, I sent an e-mail to Mike Colsher '01, my traveling companion, asking him to bring, when he left to meet me in Philadelphia later that day, a few articles of clothing I had left in a House H dryer. I went on my car trip north, thinking I would meet Mike at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia with his luggage and a tiny bag of my own things. When I picked him up, he was hauling a huge duffel bag full of some other guy's laundry; he had glanced over the message and grabbed the clothes on the dryer, rather than the ones in it. Colsher has the distinction of being the smartest person I know, so this is not a reflection on his intelligence. It is, however, an illustration of how e-correspondence is consumed quickly and thoughtlessly, which is why I'm wary of it becoming the default mode of communication in any community, particularly an academic one.

Of course, academics have benefited from new technology, just as everyone else has. In 1986, says reference librarian Ken Berger, Perkins library began to barcode every book that it acquired. Less than a year earlier, the first, most primitive version of the library's "online catalogue" was made available. Today, a large portion of the library's 4 million volumes, and each of the library's 25,000 users, is assigned a barcode. Most of the collection is searchable from any Web-capable computer (www.lib.duke.edu).

Has the ease of the Web-based search changed the way scholarship advances? University librarian David Ferriero says yes. For example, JSTOR is one of dozens of electronic databases to which Duke subscribes. On it, one can find full-text archives of more than a hundred journals of politics, philosophy, literature, economics, and other disciplines. A student wishing to compare, for example, Hobbes' Leviathan and Thucydides' History now has instant, full-text "keyword" access to many of the world's premier refereed journals, saving him or her hours in the Perkins sub-basement in front of a photocopier. "The potential for new discoveries--the creation of new knowledge based upon that already existing knowledge--is astounding," says Ferriero.

He also notes one of the downsides to these new methods of research. "I think the inclination is to go online first, even though there may be more substantive information in paper format." In their quest for instant knowledge, however, "students actually waste a great deal of time doing research on the Web, because the quality is so mixed that you have to go through a lot of garbage to get to anything worthwhile."

As someone of an archival bent, Ferriero

is struck, on a different level, by Alexander Stille's observation in a March edition of The New Yorker that "one of the great ironies of the information age is that, while the late twentieth century will undoubtedly record more data than have been recorded at any other time in history, it will also almost certainly lose more information than has been lost in any previous era."

"We've just figured out how to preserve print," he says, referring to the recent availability of acid-free paper, believed to last 500 years. "Electronic information presents tremendous problems in terms of preservation." Just as people haven't figured out conventions for the use of e-mail, they have yet to decide on effective methods for preserving it. Ferriero recalls his days at M.I.T, where the university archivist's office asked the president's office to print out each important e-mail it sent or received. "We haven't come very far in terms of solving the problem of how we preserve the electronic record." He also offers the story of one Berkeley-based scholar working on a method for "photographing" World Wide Web pages. "But that's just anecdotal," he says. "We don't know how to preserve these things systematically."

Even preservation-minded librarians wouldn't lament the dissipation of long course-registration lines. The mid-1990s saw the advent of Duke's Automated Course Enrollment System (ACES). With ACES, students search for courses on the Web (http://registrar.duke. edu/ registrar/aces.htm)--with information on everything from synopses to seats available. Then, using a personal identification number, attained at the price of a short chat with an adviser, one dials into the system with a touchtone phone and identifies his or her academic choices by a seven-digit call number. The system is efficient, and saves a great deal of time and labor. But it has brought about a telling linguistic shift.

About midway through each semester, the "ACES book" comes out. The ACES book is the course roster for the coming semester, with instructors' names and course times and locations. Before semesters begin, students wake up early to "call ACES" and register. When semesters end, students wait anxiously for grades to be "posted to ACES." The "ACES lady," an electronic voice akin to the woman who has asked us all to "please hang up and call again," controls almost every aspect of a student's registration for coursework. And so a complex academic apparatus has been reduced to technological shorthand.

Enlarging on that communications-technology fixation, Jeff Horwich '99 and Brady Wood '98 created Devilnet, "Duke's virtual community and online resource," in 1998. Begun as a final project for a public policy class, the site (www.devilnet.duke.edu) consolidates bits of information ranging from area restaurant menus to available rides to and from campus. In addition to textbook resale interfaces and music reviews, it boasts areas like "The Forum" and "The Vent," where students anonymously engage in heated discussions of Duke-related issues.

Early last academic year, The Vent was taken down for a few days. The reason: threats of physical violence had been posted in the course of an ongoing argument about race relations on campus. Says Horwich, "We're well aware of the propensity people have at this stage to abuse the perception of anonymity that comes with being online. We set up The Vent to try and shape the kind of interaction we wanted to see. It's a pressure valve for the site, and it's worked almost too well." The reason for the "Vent incident," according to Horwich, is that "nobody knew who anybody else was."

The latest campus electronic phenomenon is the prevalent use of America Online's Instant Messenger and Mirabilis ICQ to conduct conversations on matters that range from the banal to the grandiose. With these programs, students carry on instantaneous conversations with friends around the world --or across the hall. Some have even been known to "IM" or "ICQ" their own roommates. A recent Chronicle survey concluded that more than half of Duke's message traffic on these programs is between students on campus. It is not uncommon to walk down a dorm hall and hear half a dozen distinctive beeps--each signaling that a new message has arrived.

What's next for a fast-living campus? Twenty-four-hour facilities for dining and athletics? Electronic textbooks? The former, says Pietrantoni, may be reality by fall. The engineering library, says Ferriero, has brought the latter into its prototype stage. Using this model, a first-year student could load all the texts he or she needed for two semesters onto a backlit, portable monitor--a sort of modified laptop computer.

Some say the academy itself is untenable in such an environment. Columbia English professor James Shapiro argues that this expectation of instantaneity with regard to information has reduced the student's capacity to reckon with texts longer than a few hundred pages. In a February Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed column, he states the results of an informal study: Of the twenty-one books on the Modern Library top 100 English-language novels that were assigned in Columbia classes last fall, only three were longer than 350 pages. Of the remaining eighteen, seven weighed in at less than 200 pages. He concludes the piece, titled "When Brevity Rules the Syllabus, Ulysses Is Lost," saying, "Today's literature classes increasingly reflect and perpetuate the values that our society holds most dear: expediency, brevity, uniformity."

Apart from the infrastructure of the institution, students are acquiring the accoutrements of a busy life: Brian Skotko, a Duke Magazine contributor, and the aforementioned Maria Fackler, both rising juniors, keep fax machines in their rooms. When he was chair of the Campus Social Board, Brandon Busteed '99 carried a pager. Cell phones have become a common sight on the East-West bus. Even students who don't partake of this atmosphere must come to terms with its effects. Carolyn Mork '00 expressed this sentiment poignantly in a February column in Duke's Chronicle: "Every Monday, I tell myself, 'If I make it through this week, I'll be able to slow down and take a breather.' But I get through the week and realize that the next one will be just as horrendous."

What is the role of a university in shaping its campus culture? Responding to an essay by Duke classicist W. Robert Connor in Ideas, the journal of the National Humanities Center (which he directs), Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco wrote, "We should never get into the business of proselytizing the impressionable young, or teaching dogma, or transmitting any ideas--moral or otherwise-- uncritically." It seems, though, that the mandates of velocity are as much an ideology as an amenity, as much a dogma as a means of transmission. And unlike other ideologies and dogmas, which universities have questioned and analyzed, this one is bought into, wholeheartedly, without skepticism.

I started this investigation looking to show how substance and contemplation, long-held virtues in academic communities, had given way to instant accessibility. I realize now that those virtues are no less dogmatic than the mandates of a speed-driven culture. But there is a tiny fracture: "Substance and contemplation," though vague and arbitrary, refer to something beyond themselves. The discourse of velocity is, on the other hand, hollow.

The code of values that underlay universities for hundreds of years brought with it a whole set of hierarchies, associations, and rituals. At Pembroke College, Oxford, every member of the college convenes nightly, clad in academic robes, for dinner and conversation. We can ask if this practice is dated or oppressive; but it is ultimately grounded in human interaction, and was established because these mealtime discussions themselves added to the quality of life--intellectual and otherwise--on campus. The campus committed to velocity, though, risks dedicating itself to accelerated living at the expense of educational ends.

In 1784, French visionary architect Etienne-Louis BoullŽe etched his Project for a Memorial to Isaac Newton. BoullŽe's dream (though never realized) was a giant, hollow sphere, occupied only by an empty sarcophagus symbolizing the scientist's mortal remains. "O Newton!" he wrote in ironic celebration, "I conceived the idea of surrounding you with your discovery, and thus, somehow, of surrounding you with yourself." BoullŽe wanted to enshrine Newton in the empty sphere of his ideas. Looking at Duke today, it seems that we have done the same to ourselves. Increasingly, the conventions of the campus are indistinguishable from those of a wider culture on the run. They, and the technologies that speed them along, are at once totally liberating, totally empty, and totally confining.

Tinari '01, from Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, is the magazine's Clay Felker Fellow. He is currently on a Duke study-abroad program in China.

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