33 Days 8 Campuses 127 Kids and an Infinity of Gizmos Roadtripping in search of the technological future
(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's mid-April, and my boyfriend, Scott, and I are headed out on a road trip. We're going to spend a month visiting colleges and talking with kids about technology. It's an awesome assignment, and naturally we are psyched. We imagine nights in motels. Revving to 80 mph on the open road. Gallons of late-night truck-stop coffee. Hours of great conversation. Toga parties! I rent a roomy car; Scott stocks up on sunscreen, CDs, and Twizzlers. We throw on our college uniforms--comfy jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers--and prepare to blend in with the kids.
One of the items we bring along in our car is an old Mac SE, sans hard drive, which I bought for $2,500 when I started college in 1989. We think it's the funniest retro relic since the lava lamp and plan to show it to the kids and see what they think. We test our little icebreaker out at a bar in Champaign, Ill., a town with a great tech history, where Marc Andreessen dreamed up the browser. Our victim is Vilas Dhar, a personable if overachieving 18-year-old sophomore (and chair of the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery at the University of Illinois). Scott takes the Mac out of its carrying bag and places it majestically on a pub table. We grin widely.
And Dhar says...nothing. In fact, he looks as if he wants the floor to swallow him whole. It's then that we realize it doesn't matter that (we think) we're young and hip, or that (we think) we have cool CDs, or that (we know) we have mastered the subtle nuances of undergrad fashion (i.e., we look like slobs). To Vilas, we might as well be collecting Social Security! We're 69% older than he is! When we went to college, most students didn't have e-mail, much less Internet access. Neither of us has ever downloaded an MP3 file or gotten into instant-messaging. Vilas has no interest in our computer--or in being our friend.
So we buckle down to do our job: learn something about the future by checking out the new breed of college student. We spend 33 days on the road, driving more than 2,300 miles through eight states, meeting at least 127 kids. We visit the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the University of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at San Diego, Stanford, and MIT. Just for fun, we try to learn what music the students like, how they date, and what they drink. But mostly we explore what gadgets they use, what computer stuff they're studying, what programs they have on their PCs, and how they feel about their job prospects. And we wonder whether we'll discover some "next big thing" we should know about.
It doesn't take long to pick up on the many ways the kids are different from us. They're younger and skinnier, of course. They're apolitical--much less anti-establishment than we were in college. They like "flavored malt beverages" like Smirnoff Ice. They enjoy newfangled delicacies like Zippers, the prepackaged jello shots.
And they own tons of gadgets. Case in point: Josh Michaels, a senior at the University of Illinois, who invites us to his apartment to "demo his house" for us.
Barefoot and in a baseball cap, Michaels sits cross-legged on his bed and reaches over to grab a teeny tiny laptop off his bedside table. He begins tapping away on its little keyboard. "I want to be able to control every device in this apartment without getting out of my bed," he says, explaining that all the gizmos in the place--including his coffee grinder and espresso machine--can be controlled via the wireless network he's built. He types a command and pauses dramatically--then, sure enough, his stereo roars (playing Radiohead's OK Computer). He types a bit more, and his bedside lamp clicks on; next he's browsing the Web on the laptop's miniature screen. Michaels can access his TiVo, his Xbox, and his DVD player this way. He doesn't even have to leave his bed to check whether the pizza he's ordered has arrived. All he has to do is glance at the homemade security camera and monitor he set up on the bureau across the room.
Michaels is extreme; most college kids don't have the money or the inclination to program their computers to make cappuccinos. But they do have gear--way more than students did ten, or five, or even two years ago. PCs, cellphones, and printers are standard; laptops, PDAs, TiVos, iPods, and Xbox consoles are more common by the day. According to Ruth Addis, director of user services at the University of Michigan's Information Technology Central Services, around 90% of this year's incoming freshmen arrived on campus already owning a PC. Some 41% said they had created at least one Website. And 39% said they talk on their cellphone for more than 250 minutes a month.
But it's not the gadgets that define campus computing in 2002, it's the network--the fact that the laptop is connected to the stereo is connected to the wireless hub is connected to the espresso maker. All the universities we visit provide Ethernet on campus, and as the kids have gotten accustomed to the speedy service, they've grown unwilling to accept anything less. They're beginning to think broadband is a basic human right. Living in dorms has newfound cachet--they're usually wired. "I considered moving off campus, but then I realized I'd lose my Internet access," says Ziba Scott, a University of Chicago junior. "So I dropped that fanciful idea!" To attract tenants, off-campus landlords in Urbana (including Michaels') started wiring apartments a couple of years ago. Fraternity houses are setting up broadband networks too.
True Internet nirvana is a school like Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon, where the network is not only fast but wireless. Imagine Josh Michaels' apartment expanded to an entire campus, and you have a sense of what that means. At Carnegie Mellon kids loll on the grassy quad and surf the Web, or lounge on black leather chairs in the student center while they check their e-mail. It's nice to see, in more ways than one; great for students to be able to hang out the way they do, and sort of hopeful for the rest of us, who'll see those technologies go mainstream in the next few years. Maybe someday we won't be chained to our desktop PCs either.
We've figured out that tech has insinuated itself everywhere--even into places you'd never expect it (like a picnic or a vacuum cleaner). So what does a college student do with it all?
If he's studious, he does his homework. If he's affiliated with a lab such as the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, like Kalev Leetaru, he works on virtual reality. If he's entrepreneurial, like MIT's Pablo Acosta, he starts a company that delivers Internet service in developing countries. And if he's an average Joe, he treats tech the way any other young person with limitless time and nary a care does: He plays with it. "Moore's law has not repealed the fundamental mission of college students," says Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who hires a lot of programmers right out of school. "It's still sex, drugs, and rock & roll."
In other words, goofing around.
It is impossible to go anywhere on a college campus today and not overhear kids screaming at each other--in person--about instant messaging. "I'll IM you about tonight!" a girl will shout over her shoulder, as she punches some buttons on her cellphone. "Is he on your buddy list?" someone else will ask, waiting in a cafeteria line. Thanks to wireless, you hear the distinctive chime as people sign on to IM in coffee shops, in dorm rooms--and, to professors' dismay, in class. IM erases long distances: University of Illinois senior Andrew Havlir uses it (along with a tiny Web camera) to talk to his girlfriend in Florida. It stretches short ones: "I've actually IM'ed someone across the room," boasts Eric Faden, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon. Kids chat on IM during interviews with FORTUNE. When I spend an hour with Carnegie Mellon junior Liya Zheng, her laptop sits on a nearby coffee table, suspiciously open and glowing. Bling! it goes. "That's my IM," Liya tells me. She's apologetic. Then again, she also goes ahead and types a response.
Napster isn't operating anymore, but file sharing is still huge. Students download all kinds of stuff off sites like Morpheus and Kazaa--tons of music but also software programs, current movies, and cult TV hits. It's hard to get high-quality live-action footage off the Web, but cartoon downloads look pretty good, and dozens of kids we meet keep extensive animation collections on their hard drives. The Simpsons episodes are everywhere, and The Family Guy, Invader Zim, and anime (a style of cartoon from Japan) are well represented. One group of roommates at Carnegie Mellon spent the better part of a semester rigging up an old classroom projector to build a sort of homemade movie theater. They agonized over how to make their wall most like a film screen. "We researched this," says senior Dave Culyba. "We figured there must be some kind of paint that was good. But it turns out that the wall was fine." Who knew?
And people still spend hours on videogames. Snood, a puzzle game, is a popular procrastination tool and usually played alone at a desk. Shoot-'em-ups like Counter-Strike and fantasy games like Diablo II are more of a full-fledged extracurricular activity. In freshman dorms, it's pretty common for kids to walk the halls to recruit friends for pickup networked games. Counter-Strike players team up into clans and compete. And Diablo II players--well, let's just say they can be social. Intensely so.
Mark Tomczak, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon, has been playing a lot of Diablo II--think Dungeons and Dragons, but online--these days. He has a weekly face-off against his 13-year-old brother back home. Tomczak also participates in another game with his friends Brian Railing and Katie Hare. Some weeknights, he carries his laptop across campus to their dorm room, wires it to the others, gets into character (a sorceress called Ferix--all his fantasy characters' names are anagrams of "Fixer," which is what he calls his computer), and slays a bunch of monsters.
One chilly April evening, Tomczak, Railing, and Hare invite us to their game (rather thoughtfully hooking up one of their computers to a TV so that Scott and I can see how Diablo II works). Tomczak and Hare, who is playing as a barbarian named Eth, work together to kill bad guys on a battlefield. They shout back and forth about monsters and minions and how many gems they've picked up. At one point, when both get socked by some kind of demon, they scream in unison, "Ouch!" Railing plays alone--he is apparently the best player. Nevertheless, his character, a sorceress named Jade, dies several times as she tries to navigate through a cathedral. "Oh, no, you don't!" he mutters to his monitor. "Teleports can't save you!"
At a lot of high schools and colleges, kids call this kind of gathering a LAN party, because players get together in one room and hook their computers up to the local area network. Hare insists that this particular game is not a LAN party, it's "just hanging out." Whatever you call it, the evening is more about being with friends than it is about the game. In the two hours they play, Tomczak, Hare, and Railing (not to mention five or six friends who pop in and out of the room, Kramer-style) catch up on a hallmate's test, a friend's fundraising efforts to fight MS, budding romances, and Invader Zim episodes they love.
All this playtime is a drain on the universities' information systems. While tech-support costs don't necessarily get out of whack--kids needing help can just go to a residential computing consultant (a school-sanctioned RA for the PCs) or, barring that, a friend--the network itself takes a bruising. Charles Bartel at Carnegie Mellon estimates that 30% of the school's network traffic is e-mail, that another 40% is file transfers and Web downloads, and that 30% is everything else, including games, IM, and visits to sites like Kazaa and Morpheus.
Administrators at the University of California at San Diego don't seem to mind. UCSD is actually encouraging its students to run rampant over the network; it is handing out spiffy color-screen wireless PDAs (Jornadas, donated by Hewlett-Packard), which it hopes kids will use to IM one another, check e-mail, and surf the Web. The idea is to learn how kids use the things and then build educational tools that take advantage of the technology.
The school has already written a couple of applications for the system. Neither has caught on like wildfire just yet. The first, ActiveClass, is among other things supposed to boost participation in class by giving shy students a way to send questions to the professor (wirelessly!) without having to raise a hand in class. This quarter UCSD is testing it out in CS 30, a fundamentals of programming class that's required for computer science majors. CS 30 is a healthy-sized lecture class, a perfect environment for tuning out. And indeed, from the back of the classroom, it seems the students are doing just that. Only about half even bring their Jornadas to class, and while the others do poke away at the gizmos, it's hard to tell whether they're participating in class, writing grocery lists, or playing Solitaire. One group of students spends 30 minutes passing notes (on paper!) and giggling. ("Hey! Are you looking at Internet porn on my PDA?")
The second Jornada application, ActiveCampus Explorer, is supposed to foster community on campus--since many UCSD students commute about 20 minutes to school each day, they tend to treat the place more like an office than a home. "If this school is known for anything, it's for apathy," says senior Ben Shapiro. Shapiro and a few other students collaborated on Digital Graffiti, a part of ActiveCampus that uses radio-based location technology to let students post public electronic notes at campus locations. (For example, if I were in the Student Center and saw a piece of art I liked, I could write a little review of it on my Jornada, and then hit Tag to publish. If you then walked past the art, my note would pop up on your PDA. And if you liked it too, maybe you'd write me a note back, and we'd start talking.) It's hard to tell exactly what kids are doing with this. Junior Aliha Khan offers to let me read the virtual graffiti that's been posted at the Student Center, a single entry: "mwahahaha."
At least one person--Larry Smarr, who heads up Cal-(IT), the state initiative funding the experiment--is thrilled by that. Smarr believes firmly that the "mwahahahas" of the world, the fruits of idle curiosity, are what generate the best new technologies. The really good stuff percolates up to popularity. He should know: He spent 15 years as the director of NCSA at the University of Illinois and was there when Marc Andreessen helped develop the Mosaic browser, which percolated quite nicely and eventually became the basis for Netscape. "The business community thinks startups are where innovation is. But startups are late-phase," Smarr says. "A lot of people in the business world don't understand how critical the university system is for sorting through all the possibilities for the future and homing in on the ones that are really cool."
"Mwahahaha?" The next big thing? You never know. As it turns out, much of what looks like clowning around with ActiveClass in CS 30 is actually a lively conversation about memory allocation in the computer language C. A group of students are writing to each other and to the TAs, answering each other's questions about the material--which means that Professor Rick Ord doesn't have to interrupt his lesson. Ord tells us that the kids have figured out how to do this all on their own, only three classes into the quarter.
A lot of people buy into Smarr's percolation idea. The schools milk it for all it's worth: "the next big thing" is big business at universities. Every campus we visit has some flashy, cutting-edge showpiece prepared and ready to impress. Professors trot visitors through cluttered labs strewn with robot parts; virtual-reality workshops; gigantic, next-generation display technologies. All the big tech companies swarm on campus, too, funding student projects and looking for talent to hire. At MIT, Microsoft has handed out $750,000 to fund student projects. Apple hires students to promote its products at the University of Chicago. Everyone is hovering, hoping to be the first to recognize the next breakthrough.
But Scott and I never really find the next big thing, technologically speaking. Kids are rigging up all kinds of cool stuff in their spare time--one of the neatest ideas we see comes from a senior at Illinois who uses his computer at NCSA to write software that tracks "six degrees of IM separation" (and inspires an impromptu popularity competition on campus). But there's no new, widespread killer app in the dorms--just different flavors of IM (like ICQ and Trillian) and assorted sons of Napster (like Kazaa and Morpheus). There's some interesting stuff in the labs we visit at Carnegie Mellon and UCSD, but nothing that isn't related to technologies we've seen before. Same goes for the entrepreneurs we talk to at Illinois, Stanford, and MIT.
What we can say definitively, by the end of our trip, is that technology is about to spawn a bunch of next big things in life.
--TECH WILL BE FOR EVERYONE, NOT JUST FOR HACKERS. It's no longer the case that you have to have been programming since infancy to study computers, and as a result different kinds of kids are getting into it. Interdisciplinary classes--courses that mix computing and music, or computing and business, or psychology, computing, and biology--are immensely popular. That is one reason you see a lot more women in computing than you used to. Carnegie Mellon's freshman CS class went from being only 7% women in 1997 to being 40% women in 2000, mostly by opening up the major to students without programming experience. Having more girls in the mix, people say, may change everything. Google CEO Schmidt says that the combination of "ultraprepared nerdy guys"--the hackers--and "socially adept women" will erase the gap that has always existed between the moment a tech product debuts and the moment it becomes easy to use. Next to join the mix, folks hope, will be African Americans and U.S.-born Hispanics, who are still few and far between in engineering. "The representation is almost zero," says Rice University professor Richard Tapia, a well-known advocate for diversity in the sciences. For now, Tapia says, most of those kids don't "have the confidence you need to succeed in tech." And he thinks it will take years to address the reasons that is so.
--DESPITE THE TECH DOWNTURN, COMPUTER SCIENCE WILL BECOME THE NEW PRE-MED. Most kids say the employment landscape these days "just blows." Landing a job out of school is very, very hard. Lucky tech types who do get work are going to Microsoft, AMD, and IBM, not startups or Internet companies. An astounding number of the kids we meet are staying in school, picking up master's degrees and even doctorates, trying to put off having to take positions that aren't their dream job. Expecting a dream job right out of college is typical, a hangover of the dot-com era. There's a certain wistfulness about missing out on the boom. "I'm kind of sorry I missed being part of the rush to figure something out," says UCSD senior Tyler Gelvin
That said, even as unemployment looms, the kids evince a growing faith that tech is the one sure thing. It used to be that a bright middle-class kid who wanted security would study to become a doctor or a lawyer--pre-med and pre-law were almost defaults. Today's default is computers. We hear stories of parents (including a lot of immigrants) pushing their kids into tech. "You can pretty much bank on a job if you have a degree in computer science," sighs Lani Perlman over a beer. She's a senior liberal arts major at the University of Chicago. "A lot of people are deciding to get CS degrees because it will get them a job, and a job that pays," agrees UCSD's Aliha Khan, in a decidedly less tormented tone. Her major? Computer science.
--COMPUTING WILL MAKE IT EASY FOR ANYONE TO BECOME AN ARTIST. In music classes and in nightclubs, kids are just as likely to play a laptop as they are to play a guitar. Carnegie Mellon deejay and senior John Ketchpaw is working on a gizmo that, like Stanton Magnetics' Final Scratch, makes it possible to "scratch" MP3 files. (He says his invention is better than Stanton's.) Michigan sophomore Tony Pinter is today's version of an author: His blog (Weblog, or published online diary) was called whychicksdigme.com. Northwestern senior Kate Simko, who's majoring in music technology, says, "Flash is the thing"--i.e., she uses the popular animation tool to mix sounds and images into interactive Web multimedia.
--LAWS WILL HAVE TO CATCH UP WITH TECHNOLOGY. A lot of what kids love about ubiquitous computing, like grabbing music, software, and TV shows off the Net, is illegal. It's also here to stay: All it takes to duplicate a protected file is to put it in analog form and redigitize it. Furthermore, kids are not exactly kindly disposed to the record companies they're stealing from. As Simko says, "I'm totally 100% pro-Napster, I'm totally 100% pro-download. I watched the Grammys...and they made this big speech about how it's killing the industry. But it's the big labels that have killed music, so I think it's awesome. If they fail, more can happen." Larry Smarr calls the peer-to-peer phenomenon an "overwhelming social revolt."
Someone, somewhere, is going to have to come up with new laws and mechanisms for protecting content. Same goes for protecting the privacy of people who use wireless networks and location technologies like GPS. UCSD's Ben Shapiro, a longtime ACLU member, wonders how his school will deal with privacy and speech issues created by ActiveCampus, which lets students track their friends at school: If a networked student visits a health clinic, can he be sure he isn't being tracked on the system? Who gets to decide what speech is permissible on ActiveCampus and what isn't?
--A NEW ETIQUETTE WILL EMERGE. The privacy thing isn't just a legal issue; it's a personal one. We are all going to have to figure out how to live with being always available. Students pretty much assume they're expected to be online all the time; rather than turning IM off when they leave their screens, they post an "away message"--a pithy little statement, often tailored to impress, that tells the caller they're away. (Asked if this is a matter of etiquette, Carnegie Mellon sophomore Jennifer Li says no, "it's just that you want to get your messages.") But some kids--often seniors, it seems--bristle at the lack of privacy. "I hate it. I just can't stand it," says Stanford junior Jeff Woods. "My girlfriend wanted me to go on it, and I said no way. I hate that thing." Adam Murray, a senior at Carnegie Mellon, tells us that he quit using IM because "I got sick of being so easily available."
Dating decorum will have to get ironed out too. Students don't date online per se--if there's any time in life you don't need help meeting people, it's college--but certain courtship, er, rituals are, um, digitally enhanced. Like stalking. Murray's housemate and friend Leah Miller describes a phenomenon known as "zmap, finger, Google, stalk" --in which a guy sees a woman at a computer, taps into a Carnegie program called zmap to get her user ID, runs the Unix finger command to get her name, calls up a Google search to find out all he can about her, and then starts badgering away. Just as in the world outside college, Google has become a tool of espionage. At least four kids I talk to tell me cheerily that they "Googled me" before agreeing to be interviewed. It's one thing when public relations executives check up on you; it's another when frat boys do.
Of course, a million things that we see on campus during the trip seem awfully familiar. Midwestern kids still play cards (euchre, mostly) in bars. Pranks and campus traditions continue unabated. Frats and sororities are thriving. Checking your mailbox is still a big deal.
But in fact technology has changed these things too. E-mail, obviously, has eviscerated snail mail. When we tell Stanford junior Woods that in 1993 students would sprint back from class to see what awaited them in their mailboxes, he looks stunned. "You mean U.S. mail?" he asks. "People only check that every couple of weeks!" But frats and sororities? Well, now they have Webmasters in addition to kegmasters. Card playing? Kids keep score on wireless Palms. And Carnegie Mellon's longtime tradition is for students to regularly paint a message on a particular barnyard fence--known as "The Fence." This year junior Ben Buchwald hacked the university network so that the theater department's electric marquee read WHY PAINT THE FENCE IF YOU CAN HACK THE SIGN? He was cited by Carnegie Mellon security.
There's one other change technology is sure to wreak as well: Ten years from now, all that we've seen will be as obsolete as the Macintosh that Scott and I uselessly lugged around. And that's some kind of cold comfort for us old fogeys.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Scott Sonneborn