Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Email killed the faculty club

One day on the UBC campus some time ago, I noticed that the UBC Faculty Club was no more.  It had become a restaurant, listed in a Google search as “UBC’s former faculty club restaurant.” 
I commented to a faculty member that the elitism of a faculty club had finally done it in.  I recalled that the big student sit-in at UBC in the 60s had targeted the faculty club, not the administration building.  And SFU’s equivalent Diamond Club had always had a more egalitarian sense because it accepted any member of the campus community—as long as they could afford it.
Not so, I was told by a faculty member.  It wasn’t elitism.  It was email that killed the faculty club.
One of the functions of the faculty club had been for faculty members to meet others to talk about the work they were doing or to share information about some departmental intrigue.  No more.  Those functions can be carried out by email, without even having to come on campus.
I checked on the history of the faculty club—isn’t Google amazing—and discovered that it filed for bankruptcy in 1994.  That matched the time that email would have become ubiquitous on university campuses.
Isolation—space and technology
I thought about this when I read an oped in the September 11Vancouver Sun by the architect Bing Thom and some colleagues.  The headline on the piece read “Use design to end isolation in vertical suburbs.” 
I had never thought about those highrise condos in quite that way before—vertical suburbs that have a similar lack of connection to other suburbs.  In fact, they may be even more isolated than suburbs where kids playing outside and parent meetings at school provide chances of getting to know neighbours more than does the occasional sharing of an elevator, with everyone looking at the floor or the indicator of progress.
Here is what Thom and associates had to say about the reciprocal role of technology and the design of space:
“In the past, a great deal of our social interactions and engagements were facilitated by various civic institutions. Technology is radically changing how these institutions function: universities offer courses online and libraries and museums are digitizing their collections. While how information is stored and distributed in these institutions has drastically changed, the need to connect people with ideas and each other is more important now than ever before. These institutions need to continue to re-imagine their roles as they change from being content providers to centres of human connectivity, community, and potential.
“Architecture and planning at their worst exacerbate isolation by design, however, their thoughtful and engaging incarnations can help break down cultural walls and span social chasms.”
This is the real challenge of social design in an age of digital connectivity.

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