Penn State

Andrea H. Tapia - associate professor of information sciences and technology, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Pillars of the Earth

Author: Ken Follett

Book Description:

When this book first came out in 1989 I was in college and studying abroad in Seville, Spain. I was studying languages—Spanish and Arabic, and history—medieval and art, at the Universidad de Sevilla. I was reading hundreds of pages in Spanish each week and in my exhaustion, sought out an English-language guilty-pleasure read. I bought a copy of this book at a local English-language bookstore and was instantly transfixed. I read the entire book to the detriment of sleep, study and social interaction.

The book is a long metaphor for the beginnings of the enlightenment and hope for mankind. As the main characters build a new style of cathedral, in which the space is open, filled with light and built on new scientific insights, so is the medieval society in which the story takes place. The book is a story of the triumph of science, reason, ingenuity and perseverance over dogma, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Throughout the book, the main characters find new ways to do, create, and build something that breaks with tradition, yet yields a better practice or product. These same main characters are confronted by evil in the form of religious fanaticism and dogma, traditional blind adherence, greed, and jealousy, and yet persevere in their efforts to build something better. These characters also struggle against the hierarchical structure of medieval society, suffering under the unjust nature of the feudal system and attempting to work around and bend these strictures.

Twenty-one years later, I believe that this book has affected my choice of career. I am now a public informatician, an academic with expertise in social research methods and social theory and I apply these tools to the study of information and communication technologies (ICT) and their context of development, implementation, and use. Technologies are created, adopted, and used by groups, organizations, institutions, and societies in patterned behavior, which has implications for both the institution and the technology.

These technologies are mediated via stratified groups and often are imbued with power beyond their function. I often see the world in stratified layers and classes, as oppositional and conflicted, and I am comfortable with the role of academic-activist and public agent. My scholarship of public informatics is focused on problems faced by public and non-profit institutions and their work toward a public good. The problems that concern me are those endemic to the public sphere, the lack of and management of scarce resources, sharing materials and information, and increasingly, the need to play competitively alongside private industry.

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