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Geologic Column
This Revolution Waits for No One
Fred Schwab

My abstract acceptance e-mail from the technical committee for the meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, last fall was blunt: “Slide presentations using 35-mm projectors are no longer available at GSA” — only digital media presentations and a centralized computer system were available.

The battle between keeping up and escaping will be constant.

Because I dislike and am uneasy with PowerPoint, I immediately sent an e-mail to the company contracted to handle the presentation technology for the meeting, to see what my other options might be. I decided to rent an overhead projector from them for $45 an hour. An uneasy week spent making transparencies and imagining myself stumbling around in front of a sleeping audience at 8:05 a.m. in a darkened room at the convention center, however, gave me second thoughts. I had to join the 21st century.

Sure enough, while PowerPoint has its flaws (see the February 2004 Geotimes Geologic Column, “The Pitfalls of PowerFluff”), the oral presentations at the 2005 GSA meeting (the first without any conventional slides) were technically almost flawless. Poster sessions featuring elaborate artistic masterpieces generated by the latest super-printers were far superior to their scotch-taped, brightly colored posterboard predecessors.

My change of heart led me to examine larger implications of the technological revolution. E-mails back and forth with Nancy Carlson, the technical program manager for GSA, answered some questions. She explained to me that while progress costs (rental fees for LCD projectors, for example, are steep), the new technology and accompanying procedures significantly streamlined the process by which the meeting organizers assembled an abstracts volume. The number of employees involved in the weeks before annual and sectional meetings has been reduced from roughly eight to one. In past years, GSA brought 40-plus reviewers to its national headquarters in Boulder to put the national technical program together. Now it’s all done online.

The last-minute session at the Salt Lake City meeting, “An Eye on Katrina: Geoscience Perspectives on a Catastrophic Hurricane,” probably couldn’t have been put together without the electronic revolution. The talks themselves demonstrated the benefits of technology. Downloaded satellite images showed the shocking extent of damage and coastline alteration. One paper by Margaret McMillan described GISCorps, an organization of professionals skilled in GIS (geographic information systems) and global positioning system (GPS) techniques who were voluntarily deployed along the Gulf Coast to speedily “facilitate map production, data management, and other critical spatially-related functions” in support of the belated recovery effort. Imagine what location tracking — radio-tagged personal identity labels linked to GPS — could do for finding lost field geologists, Alzheimer’s patients or even philandering Parisians.

Also in full view at the recent conference were cell phones, which some people describe as the cigarettes of our decade — an addiction, a symbol of our fanaticism for connectedness. Some went off during technical sessions, and some attendees hugged their phones tighter than I embrace my wife! Sadly, people stood in longer lines for e-mail and Internet access than for chili and cappuccino before lunchtime “Hot Topics” sessions. Despite these seemingly annoying cultural shifts, however, consider the potential that cell phones and the Internet have to save countless lives in disasters such as the Sumatran tsunami or Hurricane Katrina.

Technology is also impacting publishing dramatically. I remember my frustration as an associate editor for Geology and the Journal of Sedimentary Research, wasting hours tracking down reviewers by telephone. Now, e-mails trigger immediate responses. Manuscripts and reviewers’ critiques that once shuffled slowly back and forth by FedEx and UPS from reviewer to associate editor to editor, with glacial turn-around times, now travel (like this Geologic Column did) through Cyberspace.

Likewise, smart electronic classrooms permit images, graphics, animations and bullet points to be more effectively presented. Progress has been made in engaging students in large, lecture-type courses with classroom performance system (CPS) “clickers.” Academic institutions like Duke, Purdue and Drexel universities have pioneered “podcasts,” audio recordings of classroom lectures available online and updated continually.

Amazon and Google are perfecting systems that allow online access (purchased at roughly 5 cents per page) to any page of any book or journal. The Google Search Library Project (formerly known as Google Print), which is seeing its fair share of copyright controversy, is essentially a single gigantic electronic library card.

This revolution will stop for no one. But there are downsides.

Balancing savings in time, personnel and logistics with the cost of software and hardware is critical. The federal government is requiring universities (some of which are protesting) to overhaul their Internet computer networks to facilitate monitoring of e-mail and all online communications, at a cost of $7 billion. Some argue that wireless classrooms do more for in-class text messaging and Web surfing than for learning.

The battle between keeping up and escaping will be constant. Instantaneous connectability through Web surfing, online shopping and research, e-mail and cell phones is wonderful, but what happens to weekends, holidays and simple reflection? A plugged-in generation constantly wired to iPods, BlackBerries and cell phones may become too tightly tethered intellectually. I’m not surprised that recent recipients of MacArthur Fellowships (so-called genius grants) spend lots of time “unplugged,” as was reported in The New York Times on Sept. 27.

As we continue to trade time and freedom for instantaneous connectability, do not become so plugged in that you lose touch with yourself and your life. The most important component of any technological tool is its on-off switch.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

The Pitfalls of PowerFluff,” Geotimes, February 2004.

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