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Faculty panel sees old patterns and new possibilities in digital culture

Jeff Hancock's 7-week-old daughter visits with her grandparents every weekend via Skype. Chris Schaffer trades text messages with students about emerging lab data. Kavita Bala dreams of the day holodecks aren't just science-fiction staples, but meaningful ways to understand other times and cultures.

Technology may be changing how we relate to each other, but it still reflects age-old human behaviors and needs. Such was the recurring theme in a panel conversation on Nov. 18 in Boston. The panel was the centerpiece of "Cornell on the Charles," the fourth in a series of events aimed at raising awareness of Cornell's strategic campaign priorities, particularly scholarship aid and faculty renewal.

Moderated by Computing and Information Science Dean Daniel Huttenlocher, the panel, "A Meeting of the Minds: Being Human in the Biodigital Age," examined how biomedical and digital technology affect human experience. Participants were Kavita Bala, computer science; Jeffrey Hancock, communication; Chris Schaffer, biomedical engineering; John Schimenti, genetics and genomics; and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, English.

Van Clief-Stefanon pointed out shadows of oral tradition in the circulation of Internet memes. Citing a viral video of a 3-year-old boy reciting a Billy Collins poem, she said, "He's got the poem memorized by heart, and it's sort of child as archive, as bard … and instead of repeating the poem ourselves, we are passing it along via the Internet."

Not every repeating pattern is welcome, however. Hancock described an instance of "digital white flight" on MySpace, similar to the movement of white people from cities in the 1960s and 1970s. When they began leaving MySpace for Facebook, they used familiar language, such as, "it's cleaner" or "there are more people there like me."

"The word 'technology' actually means 'discourse about the arts,'" said Van Clief-Stefanon. "One thing I think about with technology is the importance of not losing sight of human beings." She asked the panelists and audience to consider the case of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer cells have been used in biomedical discoveries worldwide, but whose own descendants cannot afford health care.

But some fundamental needs are being met in digital space, from education to human connection. "We've had the ability to videoconference since 1967," Hancock said. It finally took off because instead of focusing on business, "technology now is being repositioned for the home, the family -- where actually seeing each other is really important."

Tweets and other forms of social media also fulfill a need for closeness, according to Bala. She argued that technology "is enabling us to find people we want to spend time with, and I think it's decreasing isolation people feel."

Schimenti was less sanguine, predicting a negative effect on professional and scholarly discourse. "If the Twitter servers were to get zapped by something and disappear," he said, human knowledge would be none the poorer. "You could be the best scientist in the world, be a great thinker, but if you can't describe it in a scientific presentation … it's almost meaningless. This is a big problem with our students."

Despite the downsides of digital culture, Bala said, there's also peace of mind to gain from developing games and other technologies that keep our bodies and minds sharp, or for things like checking in on aging parents.

For Schaffer, this is a vital link. "There have been enormous advances in biotechnology to keep our bodies healthy," he said, "but the tools that can keep our minds healthy have not advanced as quickly." With better understanding, he argued, "as we live longer and healthier we can also stay human."

At the panel's close, President David Skorton thanked the audience for its role in making sure diverse expertise like this exists at Cornell. "The extra edge of excellence -- the difference for recruiting and retaining some of these top faculty, and the difference between being a reasonably affordable school and a totally affordable school -- is the philanthropy, and I am hugely grateful."

Jennifer Campbell is a writer and Web content manager for University Communications.

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