I have been named the Parsons Professor of Digital Innovation at the University of Baltimore! I’m very excited about this opportunity and have some big ideas on how we can continue to make UBalt be the one of the best Universities in the region (especially for Design but I digress). After being appointed, I was asked to do a Q&A with our University communications group and have posted it, unedited, here.
We’re in a time of transition when it comes to understanding what digital really means – across demographics, and truly spanning all of society. A term like digital native no longer prompts confusion or divisiveness. Most folks don’t fret about the state of language because social media inspire acronyms and emojis. It’s just people talking. If digital simply conveys alive in the 21st century, what is a good way to maintain some expectations about that term?
I think that the concepts of digital were thrust upon people willingly or not during the pandemic. The world saw the good that digital communications and commerce could do in a crisis like keeping loved ones in touch, ordering groceries, and attending school while simultaneously seeing the dark side of trolls, anti-vaxxers, Zoom-bombers and the like. The term digital is inclusive of a new set of tools and skills that people need in order to interact with businesses, government, and each other. It’s not that analog skills like participating in a conversation, writing a thank you note, or volunteering in our neighborhoods are going away, it’s just that how we execute the skills will be changing. I’m someone who likes to call people on the phone, however, my phone is just an app that runs on my mobile device and there are at least three different tools I use to do that. Even the wall phone in my kitchen is actually connected to a tiny computer in my laundry room that converts the old telephone signal into a digital transmission over the internet.
Access to technology in a city like Baltimore, and applying that tech to problems that plague modern life, remain a huge topic of discussion in your area of expertise. Where is that conversation heading, especially locally, and what will the center work on to bring about positive change?
Digital equity is the most pressing concern within the space right now. As William Gibson said, The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,  and it couldn’t be more true in Baltimore. According to a 2020 report by the Abell foundation , just over 59% of homes have wired internet which is 10points below the national average and disproportionally affects African American and Hispanic households. Lower income Baltimore residents rely on smartphones for their connectivity more than the national average which puts them at a disadvantage for some government interactions that are not optimized for mobile.
My plan for the Center is to connect classes with community groups, non-profits, and government so each can benefit: the students get experience working with real clients and the groups get great solutions that focus on them as users and not one size fits all solutions often sold. By focusing on the end-users, the solutions can try to bridge some of those gaps. I’m not sure we can get everyone broadband in Baltimore (there are people working on that) but we can make sure our solutions focus on mobile first and library-friendly designs to make this work for everyone in Baltimore.
Every day, experts demand attention be paid to problems that seem rooted in the rise of a connected world. One day it’s the threat of social media to the very idea of community, the next it’s the rise of cyber crime, hacking, and so on. In history, has there been an advance or breakthrough that prompted a similar level of concern? Is this something like the rise of the automobile in the era of the horse-drawn wagon?
It’s the automobile, the printing press, the telegraph, the film camera, and the television all over again. Each one of these inventions destabilized some in-group and confused others. Each time, something got faster and ideas or goods were transported faster than before. The problem today is two-fold: poorly designed tools and people unwillingly ignorant about the dark sides of technologies. In the book Ruined by Design, Mike Monterio points out that many technologies (like Twitter) were designed by white guys who never really needed to worry about racism, stalking, or harassment and that showed. I wrote about the Hawaiin Missle Crisis a few years back that not thinking about end-users can have a detrimental impact on society…the same goes for social media and online communities. If we don’t include diverse voices in the design of these digital tools, we miss the needs and concerns of the people we should be serving. And this goes for researchers and industry who often build off of each other– without diversity, you create an echo chamber that is exclusionary instead of inclusionary and community based. This is why I want the center to give opportunities to researchers from underrepresented populations to work on digital issues that most affect Baltimore.
We need to build better systems that keep people safe from hacking, stalking, and crime while at the same time teaching each other about being safe. It’s a mix of information literacy, common sense, and a little bit of technology education to get people to understand why posting vacation pics publicly while away, is probably not a great idea.
Do you think a new paradigm is coming regarding digital? If so, what’s on the other side of that evolution? What’s your vision for Baltimore if/when the digital landscape is more equitable and accessible?
Baltimore has the potential to be one of the best cities on the east coast. We have shipping access, rail ways, highways, proximity to Washington DC and Philadelphia, and 25% of the world’s internet traffic goes through Howard Street in the old Hutzler building  (which makes out digital inequity even more frustrating).
Right now, Baltimore is suffering under the weight of inequity, crime, and ineffectual leadership. Our location makes us ideal for large, digitally savvy corporations to make us their home and all of the previously mentioned traditional amenities are amplified by a digital workforce in design, business, government, and education. I’m most excited about our Center helping Baltimore move towards becoming a destination for the smartest companies.