“The Birth of the Information Age”

ENIAC 50th Anniversary Celebration
Philadelphia, PA
February 14, 1996

Prediction is, at best, an inexact science when it comes to the impact of technology. Those who ought to know better sometimes hit very wide of the mark. In the 15th century, for example, it is said that the faculty at Merton College, Oxford, were cautious about stocking their library with books because they were not convinced printing was here to stay. They were wrong.

In the 18th century, economists hailed the Machine Age as the ultimate in technology. They were wrong. In 1950, an expert predicted that 7 computers would serve all the nation’s computing needs. He was wrong. And today, there are those who say that universities in the 21st century will be no different than they are today. They too are wrong.  

One reason has to do with ENIAC, one of Penn’s proudest achievements. Unveiled 50 years ago, the world’s first large-scale, general purpose digital computer heralded a defining moment in human history.   Like the invention of other intellectual tools — the alphabet, the zero, and the printing press — ENIAC changed the world. Faster than any of us dreamed possible. And in ways few of us ever thought possible.  

On the homefront alone, there are some 65 million households with computers, many of them online. We have microprocessors in our automobiles and answering machines. In industry and business, it’s not machine power and office space but mind-power and cyberspace.  

Computing is not just about number-crunching anymore. It’s about the way we communicate, store, display, and transmit information. It’s about the instantaneous and inexpensive transfer of electronic data that move at the speed of light. It’s about interconnections. It’s revolutionary change. It’s exponential change. And it’s happening now.

What does all this have to do with Penn? Everything.   

We now have at our disposal an enormous range of marvelous new tools. Tools that are totally redefining how knowledge is produced and transmitted. Tools that can transform how research is done. Tools that challenge us to redefine what it means to be a university in the information age. We must realize the true enormity of what is happening And we must be open to its enormous implications.  

A century ago, when Alexander Graham Bell told the venture capitalists of his day that his invention would allow an individual in Chicago to talk with someone in New York, their reaction was:  “But what, in God’s name, would anyone in Chicago possibly say to someone in New York?” What indeed?  

A hundred years ago, the social and economic boundaries of the world were local. Today they are global and Penn is part of that global marketplace of ideas. Yet there are many in higher education who still believe that nothing has changed. They say that universities have been doing the same things much the same way for hundreds of years and doing them pretty successfully. They say new technology isn’t going to make that much difference.  

In the late 1800s, some people said the same thing about the newfangled “horseless carriage.” Transportation meant horses and had meant it for thousands of years — much longer than universities have been in business. Yet, by the 1920s, cars, not horses, ruled the roads. There’s a lesson here for us. Technology can change the status quo faster than we can imagine. It’s happening now. And all of us must realize that it cannot be business as usual at Penn.  

Our economy today is a knowledge-based economy. So how we prepare tomorrow’s leaders and decision-makers requires profound rethinking. It goes beyond questions of class size, budgets, and the traditional debates over the curriculum and directly to the question of how students learn. There’s no room for horse-and-buggy thinking on the information superhighway.

We have an enormous opportunity at hand. The opportunity to be the leading university of the information age. And we intend to seize this opportunity deliberately, systematically, thoughtfully, and by design. In fact, we have made the creative deployment of new technologies a goal of our five-year strategic plan: Agenda for Excellence.   

What will NOT change is our commitment to being a multi-faceted, full-service University and a human community. What WILL change — and very quickly — is how we do our business: not only how we communicate, display, and store information; but also how we teach and how we do research. 

Why do we teach the way we do?  It’s not graven on stone “Thou shalt teach by the lecture method and gather students onto thy campus.” We teach the way we do because of an important technological breakthrough — the book.  

For centuries, information has been stored in books; books are in libraries; and universities have been centered around libraries. This has meant that professors have had to be where the books were, and students have had to come to them. And typically, students could only come at certain times in their lives. 

Now, new technology is changing the rules at breakneck speed. Information no longer needs to be stored in books that sit on shelves. Digitized images and  hypertext applications are changing the very process and products of scholarship. Suddenly, the library is everywhere, and everywhere is the library. Instantly accessible from anywhere, any time.  

Does this mean that our Library will disappear from College Green? Of course not. Books will still be around for a long time. They must be. And the human interactions that go into great teaching are incredibly important and not replaceable by technology. But the university can no longer be bounded by stone and glass. Not if we are to be the leading university of the information age.  

Our Library must be at the forefront in making an ever-increasing range of electronic text, images and data available to the world-wide community of scholars. For example, when we implement the Center for Electronic Text and Imagery, scholars will have immediate access to our extensive collections of original source materials that range from rare Shakespearean editions to the history of chemistry. 

What does this new technology mean for faculty? It means that researchers will be looking at and talking with colleagues all over the world in real time via desktop screens. Human interactions on a global scale.  

Some of our faculty, like Ruzena Bajcsy, professor of computer and information science, are already leading the way. Via the keyboard, she collaborates as easily with colleagues across the world as those across the hall. New technology also means that faculty will teach more as mentors and less as lecturers. Teaching students to understand and evaluate the enormous amount of information readily available at their fingertips.  

What role, then, is Penn to play in an interconnected, interactive global society? The same we have always played: Generating and transmitting knowledge. With one difference. Our student population need no longer be limited by location, age, and class size.   

As one example, some will take courses over the Internet. They will be with Penn, although not at Penn. Lifelong learning is a field with enormous opportunities for an innovative university like ours. Does this mean that our campus curriculum will one day be replaced by Internet courses? I think not. So have no fears.  

Penn is not about to be replaced by a stack of CD-ROMS or banks of computers. The campus-based curriculum will be with us for a long time. So will the library. So will the football team. Why? Because education involves more, much more, than transmitting information. The ironic aspect of the Information Revolution is that it forces us to go beyond the technology and ask what our business really is. And our business is as much about interaction as information.

We claim that universities are scholarly communities where students learn by example and interaction. We claim that giving information without teaching critical thinking is not education. We claim that true learning is a human and humanizing process. I believe we are right. Just listen to what alumni talk about when they return to campus. They talk about the professors who changed their lives. I have yet to hear that about any computer. 

But students will surely not learn the same way in the new Information Age. How will they learn in the future? Ask Alan Filreis, professor of English. He is using the Net to extend teaching in his poetry class. In his virtual classroom, students exchange their ideas directly with one another and with him. Day and night, 24 hours. And last year, their parents took the course with them over the Net.

Ask James O’Donnell, professor of classical studies. His Internet course on the Augustan Age has attracted students not only from Penn but 375 people worldwide. And he reports more student dialogue and interaction not less, among those face to face on campus.  

Ask Charles McMahon, professor of materials science and engineering. He and his colleagues have produced a CD-ROM that uses the bicycle and the Walkman to simulate and display information about material science in 3D.  

Students are using this program to learn independently and at their own pace. Ask any of them, and I think they will tell you that these new tools are making education more human, not less. More challenging, not less. More interactive, not less. Tools such as these are imperative for the university that wants to be competitive in the long run. And the long run is being measured not in decades but in years, or even shorter.  

We must accelerate our rate of change. Will the new information technologies also change the way we do research? Decidedly so. A leader of a major corporation recently said, “We will get our research wherever we can. It’s as easy to communicate with someone in India as in Indiana. What matters is where we can get the best work done at the best price.”   

To be an aggressive and ambitious institutional competitor in the marketplace of ideas, Penn must be interactive, interconnected, and international. We cannot do 21st century research with a 20th century information infrastructure. Or with a 20th century mindset.

The question then is one of leadership.  

To be the leading university of the information age, we must find innovative ways to exploit the unique capacities of the new information technologies across the entire University. From business office to admissions office. From laboratory to classroom. At the cutting edge of research and teaching.  

Many such initiatives are already underway. Realizing our vision as the leading university of the 21st century will require resources, energy, some fearlessness, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. To this end, we will seek investments by those in the private sector who recognize the critical importance of the University to the nation and to society. Corporations. Foundations. Alumni and friends of Penn. People who recognize the full implications of the enormous change taking place.  

When Penn threw the switch on ENIAC, the Information Age was born. And with it, a multi-billion dollar industry. We therefore intend to form broad coalitions as a means of developing and exploiting new academic and commercial uses of technology.  

We will move our new discoveries quickly to the marketplace to boost the nation’s competitiveness. We will take full advantage of mechanisms that connect research results with economic utility such as technology partnerships, marketing, licensing, and patents.   

This afternoon, we will reenact the historic moment in 1946 when ENIAC first stirred into life. I believe that fifty years from now those who come after us will remember 1996 as another historic moment at Penn.  

A time when we let go of the old and reached out for the new. A time when we wisely, creatively, and decisively said yes to the information revolution. A time when we invented the university for the Information Age.  

Penn must be at the lead in this second revolution. And rightly so.  

After all, we did start the first one.