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Using Technology to Return Faculty to the Center of the Universe

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by Anselmo Watkins
Freelance Writer

Academics have lost the esteem they had prior to the age of instant-access information.

A new Web browser conceived from a comic-book movie and created by graduate students at Chesecracer University in Colorado may hold the key to reducing incidences of depression and feelings of inferiority among high-level faculty members at institutions around the world.

The “Browser in the Round” project, also known as BITR, creates a geocentric model of Web browsing, putting the user in a chair surrounded by video screens. The user can then surf to specially designed Flash-based websites where the information literally surrounds and orbits around them.

“’Geocentric’ harkens back to the theory that the Earth was the center of the universe. With geocentric browsing, as they surf the Web, the information flows around them,” said CU Professor of Psychology Debra Witt. “BITR puts them at the center of it – they are the most important thing in the information universe. They see themselves where they know they deserve to be and it helps to re-inflate their battered egos.”

The project was conceived by graduate students from Dr. Edward Racebit’s Center of Computing Technology at CU during a Red Bull and pizza-fueled marathon of the X-Men films.

“I got the idea after watching one of the X-Men movies,” said computer science graduate student Edgar Byrnes. “There is that really cool scene where Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier wheels into Cerebro – a giant spherical computer, and he is right there at the center of the information universe. It’s so cool. I love Patrick Stewart. ‘Make it so.’”

“Of course, we didn’t have the financial means to create a complete, 360 degree room,” Byrnes added. “So we made do with what had – eight video monitors arranged in an octagon.”

Byrnes said the technology was initially viewed as “cool for playing Modern Warfare 2,” but otherwise “completely and utterly useless,” until Witt stumbled upon the BITR group and saw the potential for a treatment for victims of the still-unnamed “syndrome.”
Witt had been studying the increasing levels of depression and inferiority among academics since the advent of the Internet Age.

“For nearly 2000 years, dating back to Aristotle, Ptolemy, the Greek philosophers and beyond, academics were seen as experts in their fields. When there was a question that needed to be answered, people would go to an academic. That made the academic feel important, a key member of the community. The world revolved around them and the information they provided,” she said. “But with the internet came an explosion of free, easy to access information. If somebody didn’t understand the nature of e.e. cummings poetry or wanted to better understand the differences of the three kinds of didactic communication, they would just go to Wikipedia or Google.”

“People didn’t need to go to the academics anymore. As their popularity waned so did their pride and self-respect,” Witt added.

Witt said that 15 to 20 percent of faculty suffer from internet-induced depression. It is most often found among liberal arts educators and often manifests itself in a lack of hygiene or disinterest in their general outward appearance, including an inability to wear matching socks or an insistence on wearing corduroy sport coats with elbow patches.

“It is ironic that something that has benefited so much of humanity could still be so damaging to the most fragile among us,” Witt mused. “It only seems right that we use technology to overcome the psychological challenges that technology has caused.”