Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Good Life

On the July 4th Philosophy Bites podcast, Nigel Warburton interviews philosopher Susan Wolf as she talks about her views on meaning in life.  Not to be confused with The Meaning of Life.  As to that question, as wife-Annette will confirm, I believe the question is flawed.  Why are we here?  What's it all about?  What's it all for?  These questions are meaningless because their answers are unknowable.  It could be that a great, benevolent being created us all at the snap of hir fingers (or least after 6 days hard work and one day in front of the TV).  It could be that our universe is a science experiment run by a being from some larger "outer" universe.  It could be that we live inside an extremely detailed computer simulation and consist of nothing more than data.  Heck, I can't even prove any of you exist outside my mind.  The point is, none of these hypotheses can be proven.  These questions are the realm of religious faith, Monty Python, Descartes, The Matrix, Inception, etc.

No, the topic of the podcast was meaning in life.  What gives a life meaning or value.  Some may say (and I'll admit to this frame of thought in my past) that in order to have a good life all you need is to be happy.  Happiness will indeed bring enjoyment to life but, as Susan Wolf points out, that doesn't mean your life will have any meaning.  For example, I might absolutely adore playing Sudoku.  I play it any chance I get and derive great enjoyment from it.  But I think it would be hard to argue that such a life would be meaningful or have value (and yes, I am equating a "good life" with a "meaningful life"). 

So maybe in addition to being happy, I also lead a moral life.  I adhere to the morals of my society.  I live in service to my community.  External observers would judge me as a Good Man.  Would I then be said to have a meaningful life?  Certainly leading a moral life has value but, according to Susan Wolf, it's not enough.

The argument Susan Wolf puts forward is that in order for an activity to have meaning it needs to be both subjectively meaningful (i.e. have significance or be meaningful to the person engaging in the activity) and be objectively meaningful in the society in which one lives.  A simple example Susan Wolf puts forward is that of making a Halloween costume for her daughter late into the night of October 30th (the night before Halloween).  This activity certainly did not give her any pleasure and she probably would have been better served with a few extra hours of sleep.  Nor was the creation of the costume in any sense moral or in service to her community.  However, the activity is meaningful to her because she is doing something in service of her child.  Furthermore, in our society we recognize service to our loved ones as an activity that has value.  Therefore, it is an activity that adds meaning to Susan's life.

Possibly the weakest aspect of the argument is around objective definition of meaning.  Susan Wolf will be the first to point out that she makes no claim to any sort of objective definition of meaning or value.  No set of properties by which we can neatly categorize activities into meaningful or not meaningful.  In the absence of such properties or rules we're left to rely on intuition and accepted norms.  This is why we believe that Sudoku is not a meaningful activity and that, say, volunteering your time at a homeless shelter is a meaningful (and moral for that matter) activity. 

So with this definition in mind I humbly submit the following types of activities as meaningful: service to others, creation, invention, pursuit of excellence, pursuit of knowledge.  Naturally we can't spend every minute of our lives in categorically meaningful activities.  We need to engage, for example, in life essential activities as dictated by the biological rules of our bodies.  Furthermore, we're only human and will likely engage in purely enjoyable but not necessarily meaningful activities (computer gaming, Sudoku and Fail blogs happen to be some of the activities that bring me pleasure but are in no way meaningful).  I think the point is to try to fill as much of our time as possible, whether at home or at work, in meaningful activity in order to have a good life.  This idea shines a particularly baleful light on addictions, whether physiological additions (like alcoholism) or social addictions (like gambling or pornography), which essentially fill one's time with pleasurable activities (or miserable activities in pursuit of pleasurable activities) none of which has any life meaning or value.

I'm curious what other activities people hold to be meaningful in life (remember, both subjectively as well as objectively).  Leave a comment!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

From Campus Technology 2010

Today is Day 2 of my Campus Technology 2010 tour.  While yesterday's speakers and activities had my aching to run away from the conference never to return (Janet had better luck than I did) today's speakers more than made up for the deficit.  Yesterday brought me no insight nor inspired any new ideas.  Today, however, my horizons were expanded and many of my assumptions were challenged.  Perfect!

The Keynote

The day kicked off with an excellent Key Note by the Stephen Laster, CIO of the Harvard Business School.  Stephen is a great speaker and his topic was near and dear to my heart -- factors (8, in this case) that contribute to the success of an IT organization.

  1. Hire and mentor a great team (people first!)
  2. Run the shop as a business (a key consideration for an internal IT organization)
  3. Leverage planning and governance
  4. Take smart risks
  5. Actively measure
  6. Capture the customer (not literally!)
  7. Communicate, communicate, communicate (and make it someone's responsibility in IT)
  8. Leverage trusted advisors
He didn't come out and say it in his keynote but in a talk later in the day I got the impression he had a 9th factor which would go something like "Start small and iterate quickly".  It's nice to see successful organizations subscribing to the same principles as your own.  They're just a little further down the path than we are at Ivey and I hope to stand on the shoulders of HBS in order to accelerate ourselves. You can get a sense for the keynote from this interview Campus Technology did back in April.   

Conference Themes

I must admit that the themes I spotted at the conference were different than what I expected.  I expected a major theme to be cloud computing but it was barely even mentioned.  Other themes that received little or no attention: classroom A/V, eReaders, IT infrastructure, IT methodologies (ok, I'm not surprised about this one).  Below are the major themes that I picked out.

Distance Learning
This one comes as no surprise as higher ed institutions try to either bring in new revenue or reduce costs of delivering courses.  The industry has been working on this for some time and it looks like it'll be some time still before we can deliver a good student experience to remote learners.

Post-LMS World
The LMS (or Learning Management System) is considered a table stake technology for any educational institution.  Ivey has a homegrown LMS.  UWO uses WebCT (now Blackboard).  Moodle and Sakai are viable open source options as are others.  At the conference there seemed to be an underlying theme that the LMS as we know it today (calendars, events, forums) are outdated concepts and not in step with how students of today communicate.  There was an emphasis on leveraging modern collaboration and social networking tools.  A move away from "management" towards "personal collaboration".

There seemed to be an explosion of ePortfolio vendors at the conference.  I must admit that I wasn't familiar with the term prior to the conference but now feel sufficiently schooled to at least describe what it means.  An ePortfolio is an personalized, online aggregation of a student's achievements in not only academics but also in other activities such as volunteerism, sport, clubs, etc.  Think of it as a mash up between LinkedIn, Google Profile, Facebook, and Dropbox.

The community seemed to collectively recognize that students entering higher education did more communication via handheld devices (like iPhones, Androids, and even Blackberrys) than they did on laptops and computers.  A few schools were experimenting with mobile offerings but most were not even that far.

Academic Content Support
I was surprised to learn that many schools offer Academic Content Support via their IT organizations.  This type of support involves aiding faculty in the creation and maintenance of the content they use for teaching.  This might mean developing interactive web content to use in class.  It might mean adapting a lecture for display on an interactive whiteboard.  It might mean developing a mobile application.  It might mean aiding in the selection of a simulation vendor.  It might mean recording and/or editing video for use in a class.