Vol. 11, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 1999. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review.


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Kappa Omicron Nu


Advanced Information Infrastructures: The Human Interface

Virginia Moxley

Dr. Moxley is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, College of Human Ecology, Kansas State University


Exponential growth in the capacity of informational infrastructures during the past decade has vastly increased the ability to distribute and access information. This paper explores how advances in information technologies have impacted the everyday experiences of the people who use them. Information technologies have rearranged time use, neutralized geography as an asset (or liability) for workers and learners, and ratcheted up expectations for instantly available customized information.

Much of human progress has come about because someone invented a better and more powerful tool… Informational tools are symbolic mediators that amplify the intellect rather than the muscle of their users. —Bill Gates, 1995.

Human beings have a need to communicate. Throughout history, human communities have developed languages that enabled community members to share information. When these languages came to exist in written form, asynchronous communication occurred, and human communities shared innovations and traditions across time and place. However, until the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century, the process of sharing was difficult, expensive, and slow. The printing press transformed human communication because it could reproduce written information more easily, at less cost, and at greater speed than scribes could.

Human communities continue to search for ways to share information across time and place in ways that are easy, inexpensive, and instantaneous. Advances in information technologies in the latter half of the 20th century are vastly more significant in terms of information growth and transfer than the printing press was in the 15th century. When the printing press was invented, few people could read. When the networked microcomputer was introduced, the population of the world was mostly literate and poised to capitalize on information exchange.

The decade of the 1990s has been a transformational time for information growth and transfer. The growth in information and its accessibility has changed work, education, and family life. This growth has been fueled by advances in information infrastructures.

U.S. households have chosen the networked personal computer as the appliance of choice for the decade of the 1990s. The broad diffusion of personal computers assures consumer demand for products which drives the development of new and better hardware, software, networks, and technological services.

The memory and processing capacity of personal computers is growing exponentially. According to Bill Gates (1995), since the mid 1960s the capacity of computer chips has doubled every 18 months and this rate of growth will continue for another twenty years. The consequences of exponential growth are such that if Gates’ prediction holds true, twenty years from now computer transactions will be 10,000 times faster and what now takes a day will then take fewer than ten seconds.

The bandwidth connecting computers is expanding to allow for faster transmission of digital data. Transmission speed is not especially critical for transmitting print information to a few computers, however the transmission of images and video to vast numbers of information appliances will require broad band widths.

Software has been “dumbed down” at the user interface and “smartened up” in work capacity. Because new software is relatively easy for experienced computer users to learn, they tend to load lots of programs on their computers which drives the demand for computers with increased storage and operating capacity.

In historical context, I expect that the decade of the 1990s will come to be recognized as a time when asynchronous human communication shifted from paper to electronic media. It will also be known as a time

  • when technology and the talent to use it were never quite synchronized
  • when college professors and kindergartners were learning the same technical skills
  • when the work of high level professionals and managers was temporarily “dumbed down” because businesses and universities were slow to rethink support needs and time use
  • when human communities reconceptualized time and space
  • when glitz competed with substance for our attention and appreciation
  • when depreciation schedules were revised to accommodate the 3-year lifespan of information technologies.

This paper will discuss changes in information infrastructures that have occurred during the last half of the 20th century. It will focus on the human interface—how people have experienced these changes—during the decade of the 1990s.

A Case Study—The Author’s Journey

I am a rather typical professional user of electronic information infrastructures. As such, I have chosen to provide the following case history of my personal “coming on line.” In compiling this case history, I came to the following understandings.

Today, using the internet and a personal computer at home and work seems so natural that I cannot imagine life without my personal networked computers. Yet as the case history illustrates, most of my life was spent without a computer at my fingertips. This look back has enabled me to see that as soon as I upgraded a computer or a software program, I forgot about the limitations of the previous one and so I discounted the advances in capacity even while I was avidly using them. Because of this ability to discount advances, much of the change has been invisible to those of us experiencing it.

Throughout much of the 1990s I have felt as if I were not sufficiently competent to manage computer communication as well as I wanted. I would put off upgrades because I did not have time to learn to use the new and improved equipment and programs. I would attend training sessions and leave convinced that I was technologically inept. I watched my children develop computer skills by playing and realized that I reached adulthood in the only generation in human history to learn an entirely new and constantly changing communication medium in adulthood.

Just as quickly as communications technology advanced, expectations for it advanced. These expectations assumed that the human users of the equipment were as adaptable as the equipment itself. This has rarely proven to be the case. Having the human capacity to create an instant response to an inquiry is quite different from having the technological capacity to do so. The output from the human brain has not experienced the exponential growth that output from information technology has. For many practical uses, computing capacity has outpaced our ability to benefit from the speed. It has not however outpaced the growth of our impatience. We continue to redefine “instant.”

The following timeline is provided to illustrate the extent of change in information technologies that mid-career professionals have experienced in their work lives. I have inserted major milestones in computing technology as they happened. I note that the early milestones did not have the immediate consequences for my work that recent milestones have had.

The Mainframe Years

1967 - Kansas State University had one main frame computer primarily used for data management. Data to be inputted were carried to the computer for entry by an operator. As an undergraduate student, I enrolled in a computer programming course. Keypunched assignments were given to an operator and were run sometime within the next 24 hours.

Early 1970s - E-mail was first used for academic information exchange (Harasin et al., 1996). This use appears to have been the exclusive domain of researchers in the natural sciences. The earliest adopters were defense contractors because the military developed the first network.

1972 - Intel released a microprocessor chip (Gates, 1995). Few people other than Bill Gates and Paul Allen noticed.

1975 - Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed Microsoft, the world’s first microcomputer software company (Gates, 1995).

1977 - I employed a typist who used an electric typewriter to type the final draft of my doctoral dissertation. Computers were still mostly mainframe management and analysis tools. They were not being used for word processing.

Personal Computer Years

1982 - IBM Personal Computer is marketed with MS-DOS operating system (Gates, 1995).

Mid 1980s - Universities and businesses began to invest in personal computers for use in word processing and data management.

1984 - Apple Computer released the Macintosh, the first microcomputer with graphical interface (Gates, 1995).

1985 - I returned to KSU as Associate Dean of the College of Human Ecology. Some staff and even fewer faculty members had computers on their desks. For the next decade, the need to provide distributed computing to all faculty and staff drove financial decisions, and faculty and staff were alternately stressed either by lack of access to sufficient computing capacity or by lack of personal capacity to use what they had access to.

1989 - KSU began to provide electronic mail training for faculty. The course material had limited value for me—there were few other users to send mail to. I opened my electronic mailbox biweekly and rarely found a message.

1990 - I purchased my first home computer—a Macintosh LC with pull down bars and screen icons. The primary uses for the computer were word processing and children’s homework. Microsoft released Windows 3.0—the first graphical interface for DOS-based computers (Gates, 1995).

The Networked Years

1993 - The University opened new networked public computing laboratories, one of which was located in the College. These laboratories were not (and still are not) staffed. For the first two years, faculty members officed near laboratories became de facto lab assistants as students sought technical assistance with the equipment. Within two years, however, students sought support from peer users of the laboratories, and this has proven to be a satisfactory solution.

1994 - Human Sciences administrators in the Great Plains area met to form a distance education alliance. In 1994, distance delivery modes used by participating universities were designed for in-state audiences. Initial inter-state offerings were by videotape and telephone conferencing. Although universities could deliver courses on the Internet, most potenetial students lacked the computer and network access to receive them.

1995 - Bill Gates reported, “Now that computing is astoundingly inexpensive and computers inhabit every part of our lives, we stand at the brink of another revolution. This one will involve unprecedentedly inexpensive communication; all the computers will join together to communicate with us and for us. Interconnected globally, they will form a network, which is being called the information highway. A direct precursor is the present Internet” (Gates, 1995). The College created a Local Area Network for the building and hired a full time network supervisor. The supervisor has been upgrading computers and wiring and peripherals full time since then. All rooms in university residence halls were equipped with two Ethernet connections to link student computers to the university server.

1996 - I replaced computers at work and at home due to “social obsolescence” of previous computers. According to Tenner (1997), social obsolescence, the inability of a computer model to run new releases of important software efficiently, often occurs within a year of purchase. Local Internet access reached the rural telephone company that serves our household. We subscribed. The college offered its first courses delivered entirely via the Internet. For the first time, all entering KSU students were assigned an e-mail address at preenrollment. The university published its first campus directory of electronic mail addresses. Average daily electronic mail transmissions handled by the university server increased 400% from April 1995 to April 1996 (CITAC, 1998).

1997 - I began to teach in one of the university’s high technology classrooms. Palm top computers provide instant analysis of student responses. Networked classroom computer provides access to the Internet and is equipped with Power Point software. In-class activities are supplemented through a listserve.

1998 - Networked computers are the status quo for businesses and households in the United States. The Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) has become a virtual team that collaborates regularly on distance education and technology issues. Home pages accessed electronically are the information source of choice for prospective students and the public. Newsletters are being reformatted for electronic rather than paper delivery. Students at KSU are expected to be computer savvy when they arrive. KSU students in off-campus organized living groups that install T1 lines have direct access to the university server.

Final Thoughts

The advances during the past decade have had major impacts on our work and on our daily lives. For the most part, these impacts have been positive ones. Topping the list of positive impacts is the time and geographic freedom that new information technologies have provided. These advances in technology have also had unintended negative impacts which should be recognized and managed better.

Technology does not create time, it simply rearranges it’s use. In some ways, asynchronous communication is more demanding in terms of time management than synchronous communication. For instance, when a faculty member initiates a course for asynchronous delivery via the Internet, the faculty member’s planning and development time is “front loaded.” No longer does the faculty member experience the adrenaline high of last minute preparation for the day’s class. Instead, the faculty member must engage in a thorough planning process long before the first class is available to students. The sequence of development changes when the entire class, not just the class period, must be ready for launch at one time. If the course has previously been taught in the traditional classroom, the delivery format must be converted from a predominantly verbal format to a highly visual one. Because copyright laws are far more stringent for materials being electronically reproduced than for materials shown in a classroom, permission to use words and images must be secured from the creator of the materials and cataloged. In addition, electronic reproduction, just like paper reproduction, requires that all materials derived from other sources be cited. Again, arranging and cataloging these citations requires much more thorough documentation than faculty members are accustomed to using in preparing for classroom delivery. The time payoff for faculty members, if it exists, will only be realized during successive offerings of the course.

Students, too, have time challenges in the use of asynchronously delivered instruction. Students who enroll in distance education courses delivered via the Internet choose this delivery technique because it offers perceived freedom of time and place. However, students who most want this time freedom tend to be time constrained by ongoing roles and responsibilities. Distance education students are challenged to divert time from urgent daily activities related to work and household responsibilities to the less urgent, but important, need to learn course material. The human tendency to respond to urgent activities before less urgent but more important activities is well documented. Universities have found that the completion rate for students in distance education courses is low (Cornell, 1997). To motivate students to allocate sufficient time to the course, instructors must employ management techniques such as setting deadlines that increase the urgency of completing course work.

Good teachers engage both the intellect and the emotion of the learners. The Internet’s primary uses are for information (which feeds the intellect) and for relationships (which feed the emotion). Good pedagogical techniques will provide opportunities for developing student-teacher and student-student relationships as well as providing information that advances knowledge.

Advanced information technologies provide a geographically neutral location for the creation and distribution of knowledge (CITAC, 1998). The sense that geography is neutral in working relationships and information creation/transfer is new. In 1977, Tom Allen, MIT professor, reported that the “radius of collaborative colocation is small. People aren’t likely to collaborate often if they are more than fifty feet apart (Lipnack, 1997).” Twenty years later, Allen’s world is a distant memory because of the impact of information infrastructures that neutralize geography. Collaboration with colleagues in other locales via virtual teamwork is almost as easy as collaboration with a colleague next door.

Individuals are not bound by geography in the way they were. However, they continue to be bound to geography by things that matter to them—families and communities that provide stability and meaning to life. They expect that these entities that make life meaningful for them will be accommodated by technology that brings information and services to them where they are. It remains to be seen whether technology infrastructures will reduce or increase human migration patterns. Indeed, if people are not required to move to the job, but can bring the job to them, some will use new decision-making models based on personal quality of life measures to determine where to live.

A decade ago, as knowledge professionals began to realize the potential of networked information technologies, the prevailing assumption was that these technologies would somehow make our work easier. This has not happened. Although work has been profoundly changed by information technologies, it has not been simplified. Tenner (1997) reports that computerization has helped reduce rather than promote the amount of time that professionals spend performing their highest and best work. Professional time, according to Tenner, has been diverted into providing peer technical support, learning key boarding and editing skills formerly performed by support staff, and adapting (continuously) to technological advancements.

The transformations in information infrastructures have and will continue to create opportunities and challenges for workers and businesses and families and communities. Our experiences so far may lead to better adaptations and more reasonable responses as these transformations continue. The papers in this journal describe some lessons learned about information infrastructures that are reshaping our sense of community, the way we work, and how we access and provide information.

Should this publication be read a decade from now, readers are likely to be amused by our lack of technical sophistication and the limits of the information technology that supports our work. As information technology continues to advance, some challenges faced by current users of technology will fade and new ones will emerge. I expect that one ongoing challenge will be to meet the ever growing expectations of workers and learners for instant, easily accessed, easily shared, and easily understood customized information.


CITAC. (1998). Information technology progress and plans. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University.

Cornell, R., & Martin, B. (1977). The role of motivation. In B. H. Khan (Ed.). Web based instruction (pp. 93-100). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Gates, B. (1995). The Road Ahead. New York: Viking Penguin.

Harasin, L., Hiltz, S., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. (1996). Learning networks. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lipnack, J. and Stamps, J. (1997). Virtual Teams. Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Tenner, E. (1997). Why things bite back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. New York: Random House.