Lawrence Grossman, “Media and the Public Interest in the Digital Age”


Unlike most of today’s more project-oriented events, Lawrence Grossman’s talk discussed the direction of national policy and education in the digital age. Those here at the conference know that humanities-based computing has rapidly become a part of what has been heralded the “digital age,” offering enormous opportunities for scholars, archivists and educators to reinterpret history and present material in new and imaginative ways. But while computers have become embedded within our society, it is important to remember that substantial segments of our nation lack access to these technologies and the associated opportunities. Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, is an advocate for Digital Promise, a coalition of public interests to ensure that America’s education system remains competitive and adapts to this new digital age. Digital Promise’s goal is to ensure that all of our communities, no matter how remote, disadvantaged or impoverished, have access to educational opportunities provided by digital technology.


Grossman began his talk by emphasizing the historical precedents of Congress’ commitment to authorizing sweeping legislation that has bolstered the education system. Past legislation like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 and the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights all provided a commitment to education. As Grossman pointed out, these acts were passed in a period of transitional crisis, often under much controversy, when it was vital for America to invest in the education system. These acts that committed to higher education netted enormous gains that created over a hundred state research institutes and provided millions of World War II veterans the ability to attend universities. Grossman contends that our digital age demands a similar act.

Digital Promise’s proposed legislation, The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DOIT), would be similar to past land grant acts that would “finance the massive public digitization efforts needed to keep America’s schools and workplaces technologically viable in the 21st century.” The trust would be financed through revenues “from a portion of the Congressionally-mandated auctions of [the] publicly owned telecommunications spectrum or other federal sources.”This type of legislation is absolutely necessary for a number of reasons.

Over the past decade, the commercial world has rapidly embraced digital technologies, carving out far-reaching influence throughout the digital world. Better organized and backed by significantly larger financial support, private and corporate interests have been able to shape much of national policy while an act like DOIT would provide the non-profit sector a stronger basis for shaping the digital world. DOIT would provide substantial funding to schools, universities, libraries, museums, and public broadcasters to have a stronger share of influence over the digital world with digital preservation projects that enable individuals to access limited-access materials and organizations to create new platforms for technological and vocational training programs. Grossman argues that DOIT, if passed, could be the greatest achievement of this Congress, ensuring that our universities, schools, archives and museums would not be left behind by creating viable strategies for digital preservation and a policy framework for technological learning.

Grossman illustrated some examples of what could result from such a program. New educational platforms could be constructed like
a program that presents a 3D anatomically correct model of the human body for medical students or educational games that reconstruct ancient Babylonian society or a program that shows how the immune system functions. Programs like “Multi-Casualty Incident” can train emergency first-responders and rural clinics could draw on the resources available in large, national research hospitals. Beyond individual programs, digital archivists can create collections of documents and various primary sources, producing facsimiles of those items. This allows for users to visualize and access rare items contained in specific locations (often in geographically distant archives). At the risk of sounding cliché, this allows for the subject matter to come alive, creating enormous possibilities for teachers of all levels of education. These ideas are just some of the seemingly endless opportunities of digital preservation and technology.

Near the end of the talk, Grossman spoke briefly of the two bills in Congress, one in the House and one in the Senate. The talk ended with a brief Q&A session with one question asking Grossman about his take on the tension between accessibility and intellectual property rights in reference to Google’s efforts to digitize books. Grossman replied that DOIT places strong emphasis on public access, so there is some obvious opposition from the private sector. A key point that Grossman made was that a variety of for-profit groups are able to mobilize to protect copyright issues, yet the scholarly, academic and public interests still need to find a way to form a formidable coalition. Again, it is vital for the non-profit public sphere within the digital community to further its influence over digital development and legislation.

The Digital Opportunity Investment is this generation’s Morrill Act or G.I. Bill. By passing this legislation, Congress will show a committment to ensuring that America is ready for the digital age by providing necessary financing so that all people, regardless of status, will be able to reap the educational benefits of digital technology.

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