European zeitgeist and mysterious ways: Occupy information

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I have been absent from my blog for a while, as some of you may or may not have noticed. I found that travelling around Europe, flipping through airports and hotels and having intermittent or nonexistent internet access, combined with  more pressing and immediate priorities like talking to people, rather precluded paying attention to this blog. I promise to remedy this very soon now that I am safely back in my own familiar surroundings, with no need to rise at the crack of dawn to stand and wait around at airports for delayed planes.
My travels in Europe, the conferences, and of course the colleagues I met were all equally interesting, and I will report on them in more detail in the days that follow.  These included researchers as diverse as David Lankes and Alexandros Koulouris; Anna Maria Tammaro and Edward Fox; Seamus Ross and Vittore Casarosa; Marie-Helene Lay and Amanda Spink.

Suffice to say, while the technologists may not yet get it – neither those who own IT companies nor those who labour in the fields of computer science – other information professionals are growing more and more aware that they have special additional and irreplaceable skills to offer the networked world. This was, for me, most encouraging.  Equally inspiring was evidence of a zeitgeist that is emphasising, more and more, the necessity for the traditional information professionals not only to work with one another, but to work with the newer kids on the block. Looking at only one aspect at a time – and this has been almost exclusively the economic/financial aspect – is now being shown to be inadequate.
So, together with a new economic model that is being called for internationally by the ‘Occupy’ movements everywhere, we need a new information model, particularly with regard to access and distribution.

Prediction. Parts 1 and 2. And more to come.

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Now that we’ve passed the middle of 2011, I feel confident enough to suggest some of the things that I think we will have to think about in the near future.  I did once acquire a crystal ball, but it didn’t work: I therefore offer no predictions, but rather some thoughts on what seems to be going on at the moment, focussing on the possible effects on the information management professions.  I will mention some of these each day for the next couple of days.  Please do not hesitate to comment, as well as to add issues and phenomena that are important in your field of endeavour.

1. Multifunctionality and convergence

We have seen, for more than a decade, increased multifunctionality of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  The phone is now a camera, voice recorder, workout monitor, letter writer, internet accesser, aide de memoire and map finder, as well as other things.  This is a continuation of the development of computers, which were soon used for a lot more than just arithmetic and calculation.  The social media and search engines are moving in the same way: FaceBook does email, Bing integrates FaceBook data, FaceBook can also be used to become a member of various blogs and webistes of interest.  Google appears to positioning itself to run the Googleverse, as it develops its own versions of popular software – such as email and wordprocessing and social networking – as well as interesting additions such as Skype, blogging, Flickr and, of course, the library: Google books.  And then there’s Google Scribe, which anticipates what you are going to write; Google Body, which allows you to peel back, layer by layer, the human body; and Google Goggles, which enables you to search Google using pictures from your smartphone.

I posited previously (2002) that converging technologies have led to increasing convergence between the information professions: will this continue?  I believe that this would be desirable, but whether it is practicable and attainable is, of course, a different matter.  The arguments for increased convergence – or at least collaboration and multidisciplinary interaction – include a stronger public presence and perhaps more political clout (within organisations and communities); sharing of solutions to problems which have perhaps been located within particular disciplines/professions, but which are experience by all; recognition of the similarities, rather than the differences, of the challenges that face the information professionals.  Some of the more complex issues that must be dealt with include the retention of professional profiles, as each discipline/profession has unique characteristics and different contributions to make; the plethora of professional associations, all of which require membership fees and produce newsletters and journals that must be read; and lastly, the overwhelming number of subdivisions that can be identified in this enormous field.  Too much ‘multifunctionality’ can be diffuse – Jack of all trades, master of none.  But such demands are presently made on us: just consider the number of different tasks that must be executed in the role you currently occupy.

2. Social networking and user-generated content

The appearance and ongoing development of Web 2.0 appears to have no end.  In the analogue world, because of the relatively tedious ways in which documents were created and distributed, more control was possible, perhaps because of necessity.  Documents were not created or published unless it was necessary for whatever reason.  Publishing procedures were closely linked to bibliographic control systems: ISSNs, ISBNs, in book cataloguing information, edition statements and so forth formed part of a vast mechanism.  But even before the 1980s, people complained about information overload.  Then the internet appeared, and information professionals groaned: how on earth were we going to manage this flood of documents?  It appeared that every Tina, Dorothy and Helen could publish whatever they liked.  We didn’t even know what was out there, never mind trying to keep up with classification and cataloguing.  And then Web 2.0 happened, with amazing social possibilities.  The hallmark of this version of the internet is user creation and interaction.  Barthes mentioned the ‘death of the author’, in the sense that each reader will recreate an author’s text, an idea explored also, in some detail, by Umberto Eco in his ‘The open workThe death of the Author, with a capital A, has another interpretation now: the Author does not have to condoned, approved, validated, lionised or even recognisable to be able to publish as much as s/he wants to.

Part of the problem for the reader is being able to contextualise the author, in order to draw meaning and fully understand the ideas that are being conveyed.  The Author is no longer automatically an ‘authority’ (“I read it in a book so it must be true”): far more sophisticated skills are required in order to select, understand, analyse and critique the information with which we are now overwhelmed.  This is sometimes called ‘critical information literacy’ which is quite different from the ‘information literacy’ that librarians used to know and love.  In fact, it might almost be called ‘critical media literacy’ or, the term I currently prefer, ‘Critical Digital Literacies’.  All the technology in China – and the rest of the world – will not help us one jot if the general population does not develop these skills.  I believe that we, as guardians of memory and cultural heritage, are the very people to undertake this.

Increasing epublishing and ereading means, at the very least, familiarisation with the tools that are required is necessary.  Does this mean the end of publishers?  How does it change the publishing cycle?  There have already been huge shifts in educational resources and scholarly communication patterns (more on this at another time); Open Access and Open Source are widely used and increasingly popular.  This will have, perhaps, the greatest impact on poor countries – but what will the nature and consequences of this be?

Consider the rise of civilian journalism.  I grew up in an environment in which it was natural to doubt every word on the radio or in the newspapers on current events; we needed to understand that we were being fed half news or even no news at all.  Sadly, in environments were ‘free speech’ is protected by law, too many accept that what news is being reported, and what comments are made on it, is both important and authentic.  The ways in which journalism (‘churnalism’ is a new aspect of this – see www.churnalism.com) and the media operate is accepted as part of the transparent background.  Civilian journalism empowers ordinary people to report directly on what is happening: this, enhanced by Twitter and Facebook, provide different interpretations and views.  It can be said, therefore, that in this regard, the internet is like Foucault’s Bibliotheque Fantastique: a place where we go to discover ideas and to have them challenged.  The new heroes are, if you like, at the bottom of the pyramid, in terms of sheer number, at least.

The other aspect of this is that printed newspapers are likely to shift to online only.  An advantage of this for individuals is that they can use push technologies – news aggregators such as RSS feeds – to deliver only the bits they want to know about.  And then there was Twitter – and now, for those with iPad tablets, FlipBoard, which allows you, effectively, to create your own magazine.

As information professionals, what are we going to do about this?  How will we manage and encourage access to all these ideas?   A Sisyphean task, seemingly.  How can our knowledge and skills be used?  How can we access and use user commentaries and annotations?  At the same time, we must ask, “Who is NOT using the internet?  Who is NOT publishing their ideas?”  This group may include anyone from serious scholars to the illiterate and disadvantaged: whose voices need to be heard?  Should we have any involvement with this – knowledge creation and distribution?

The rise of secret gardens, or, the Splinterweb.  Social networking is all well and good, but perhaps the hysteria is now over: do we all want everybody to know our every move, our ever mundane and trivial thought?  And let’s not mention the time it takes to pursue this triviality.  It seems that people are becoming more selective, perhaps more discreet and attempting to use their internet space and time more meaningfully.  This would suggest not only targeted audiences, but a judicious and discriminating approach to who can see what.  There is little doubt that, with the emphasis on intellectual property (note for example the astronomical number of patents that are being applied for and approved), most knowledge creators/publishers wish to protect and preserve theirs.  So, while a considerable portion of the internet will remain public and open, increasingly we are likely to see inaccessible areas.  Costs will be involved, flying in the face of the open access movment.

 

Creativity, strategy and innovation – for sheer survival

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It seems to me that these are the essential competencies for the new breed of information professionals, instead of wondering about what (if any) technical, technological or theoretical skills should be taught in places of higher learning that educate such people.  What is required most on the ground is not people who can use information and communication technologies (ICTs) (because everybody born after 1985 has these skills, and the rest of us have already learnt them – and we all continue learning them on a daily basis, so how can a formal programme possibly keep up?).  We do not need to emphasise writing software or designing web pages, either – nor doing elaborate database construction exercises, nor any of the cutting-edge technological stuff that computer scientists (aka technologists) do very well indeed, thank you.  You lot could work a bit more closely with us lot thought, especially in overlapping areas such as ontologies, human/system interaction, information retrieval and so forth, but I’ll leave that alone for now.  In the meantime,  algorithms have taken the place of indexing; the internet issues or grants access to documents.  We also do not need people who are so involved with theoretical foundations and philosophies that they are unable to persuade the powers that be (i.e. those who control the purse-strings) of the necessity for our professional services or who cannot  provide compelling and convincing press releases, or suitably snazzy and controversial soundbites for television news.

With the world being as it is – and I will refrain from trying to elaborate on this point too much, as I am not entirely sure what the world is nowadays with everything being as jumbled up and confusing as it is – it would appear that if the information professions are to survive at all, they need to develop a different persona.  In spite of the fact that we have been drenched with the idea of the so-called ‘information society’ and pelted with new hardware and software capabilities for a couple of decades now, the link between the communication of ideas and information professionals does not yet appear to have been made in the public mind.  This is deeply worrying.  That the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, a well-educated man by all accounts, is naive enough to suggest that public libraries in Britain can be staffed and run by volunteers, is beyond mind-boggling.

Besides an understanding of our professional social responsibility – our professional raison d’etre – we need imagination, curiosity, embrace of new and strange ideas, capacity to change and turn nimbly and quickly, an adventurous spirit that has little fear of failure (it seems as if we have already failed so dramatically that we have nowhere further to drop to) and is willing to try different things and different ways of doing things.  Above all, perhaps, it a sense of political power and the development of strategic descriptions, encounters, events, plans or whatever that will catch the attention of both the public and the purse-string holders.  This is the major reason, I believe, that collaboration between the information professions is so essential.  It rises above turf wars, listserv debates, preaching to the converted, and the whole enclave or laager mentality that we have clung to for too long.

In an age that seems to rely on – nay, is predicated upon – spin, the mass media, disinformation and social networking – information professionals should use the same mechanisms and techniques if they are to survive.  It has often been noted that the side that ‘wins’ is that side whose story is most believed, and not necessarily whose army is the biggest.  There is an abundant literature on creativity and innovation, strategies and implementing plans to achieve goals, so there is little point in repeating all of that here.  But I would urge you, gentle reader, to talk to those OUTSIDE of your immediate sphere rather than seeking consolation from within the ranks where of course you will find understanding and a shoulder to cry on.  You should dangerously venture into the world of realpolitik to engage those who make the important decisions that affect us, rather than relying on public goodwill, that concedes that ‘libraries are good to have’ and ‘reading is a mark of civilisation’.  These sentiments, perhaps sadly, don’t mean anything at all in today’s rather more brutal world.  We will end up going round and round in circles until the inevitable happens.  Or perhaps it is already too late.

Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

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No, I am not going to repeat the argument so well put forward many years ago by Tom Wilson (The nonsense of knowledge management, 2002, http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html), with which I largely agree.  While Professor Wilson argues his case well, he largely comes to the conclusion that the term ‘knowledge management’ was formulated in order to cover a number of organisational managerial and communication issues, without much of a nod to – or even recognition of – the existing field of Library and Information Science, or Information Studies, or Information Studies, or whatever you want to call it.  This poverty of nomenclature – the continuing disregard that we information professionals seem to have to clarity of expression – is at the heart, I believe, of many of the perennial issues and problems that fracture our field to no real purpose.

Wilson has, from time to time, referred back to ‘knowledge management’, reinforcing his point that, as a practice or field of study, it doesn’t really exist as a separate entity, as it is identical in process and conception to information management.  What would help his argument enormously, I believe, is if he were able to use definitions for these terms (‘information’ and ‘knowledge’) that had achieved consensus in the field.  Then, we would not have to explain to all of those involved in this field, many of whom are drawn from management, information systems, business studies, technology and so forth – exactly what it is that needs to be done in order to manage ‘knowledge’.  We could perhaps even encourage these folk to take a look at the masses of research already completed in our field concerning precisely the issues with which knowledge managers now engage: assisting in the communication of ideas from one human to another.  As I have written elsewhere (e.g. 2005 and 2007), I understand information professionals to be ‘information interventionists': we intervene in the knowledge creation cycle.

The central issue, though, is that we importantly have not yet come to a widely accepted definition of ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’.  By this I mean, rather more precisely, that we do not have an operational definition that works for our field and for the work we do.  James Gleick, author of Chaos, inter alia, has now published a book on information: ‘Information: a history, a theory, a flood‘ (Fourth Estate, 2011) and one must admire him for his courage and ability to do so.  Having said that, he does not move us forward to understand better what ‘information’ is.  Neither does philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has written extensively on this topic and on the philosophy of information.  However much the data-information-knowledge model (often represented in pyramid form) is criticised or maligned, this still remains the starting point, or mental model, for both authors.  In Gleick’s case, the concept is further confused with information objects or entities, technology, networks and the new physics.  I find the understanding of information in the new physics fascinating: Information: the new language of science is probably my favourite book on this subject.  But this does not conceptualise the notion of  ‘information’ in a way that is meaningful for those of us who wish to assist people to create their own knowledge by finding out what others have thought, created, felt, experienced and so on.

This is why I wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of defining information. What I found in my research, amongst many other interesting things, is the political nature of the definition and interpretation of information, and I believe it would be appropriate for us to pay more attention to such dimensions of the core of our discipline/profession.

[I can let you have a digital copy of this work: email me or make a note here].

Open Educational Resources – and generally open stuff…

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Being ‘information interventionists’ (Myburgh, 2007), as we are, we facilitate the transfer of information from one head to another.  Practically speaking, we can only do this if the information has been recorded in some way: recorded information, or documents, we can call ‘information resources’.  The recorded information must still be moved or transmitted physically – whether by postal services or by networked information and communication technologies (ICTs).  While it is one thing knowing whether suitable information resources exist, and another knowing how to find them, the third is actually achieving physical access to them.  It is this last point that is, and has long been, critical for many individuals and communities.  Physical access to materials in many Minority World countries has been facilitated by the establishment of libraries, and more recently, by digitising information resources and making them accessible using networked ICTs.   But the problem of physical access remains enormous in most parts of most Majority World nations.  Computer costs and network access costs are often prohibitive, and purchasing access rights to digitised materials – particularly scholarly materials and those associated with teaching, learning and research – is often not a viable option.

To deal with this problem, and provide access to necessary information materials, ICTs are nonetheless very useful, and setting up centres where people can access networked computers has been largely the domain of the field called Community Informatics (which is a bit like public libraries on steroids, really.  As an aside, it puzzles me why the Community Informatics people don’t work more closely with public libraries, which are often already established as network  ‘nodes’ and can provide internet access.  But that’s a matter for another discussion).  The access to suitable materials remains a problem: open access as a general issue will be discussed as a separate issue.  The focus here is particularly on educational materials, and goes beyond access, as these are understood to support learning processes which take place over a period of time, after which the participant will receive formal recognition of having mastered the material: in other words, accredited certification.

The wonderful work currently being undertaken by Open Education Resources, which endeavours to provide quality learning materials to all, either free or at a very low cost, and to ensure that completion of such courses are formally recognised as equivalent to those bearing the imprimatur of established schools and universities, is a world-wide initiative which has drawn massive support from all over the planet.

I am proud, therefore, to introduce you to the work of a student in the Digital Library Learning Master’s program, who I met (and taught) at the University of Parma last year: Nithin Lakshmana.  Nithin is originally from India, as so is familiar with many of the information issues experienced in Majority World countries.  As his thesis, he has designed and developed a course for school teachers, which will start on 4th April.  He is hoping for at least 20 participants: please join or forward this information to any school teachers you may know!  Check out the web page: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Open_Educational_Resources_for_School_Teachers_from_Developing_Nations http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Open_Educational_Resources_for_School_Teachers_from_Developing_Nations

For those of you who wish to participate, you could go to the WikiUniversity site, or perhaps complete this course on Connecting and Connectivismhttp://cck11.mooc.ca/about.htm

All the best

Sue

What’s the point?

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There is no question that there is a surging urge to digitise. But what inspires this? What is the point of all this activity? There are a number of conversation strands to this topic, and I look at some of them here.  It is likely there are more, and others.  What does emerge is that there are professional, philosophical, economic and possibly even cultural differences in approach to digitisation, and these are by no means consistent or consensual. In fact, some of the drivers for digitisation seem to be using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

1. The first and perhaps most obvious inspiration for the digitisation of the world’s documents and cultural artefacts finds its origin in the zeitgeist of the so-called information society: a zeitgeist, may it be said, which by now is surely rather old and tawdry, and exposed for the misconceived delusion that it is. We now know that all societies have always been ‘information societies'; that we by and large agree with Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells that the concept of the ‘information society’ is in fact but another stage of the capitalist industrial society, which encourages consumerism. We are aware that the notion of ‘globalisation’, in the way it is enacted by multinationals to exploit the poor and disadvantaged in favour of the rich, has some serious ethical questions to answer. We can also, quite quickly, dismiss the idea that technologies, in and of themselves, can create change or increase social development: it is the USE of them, and the PURPOSES for which they are used that will make the desired differences in the lives of individuals, communities and societies. This purpose, from the point of view of information professionals, is to assist in the communication of information (or ideas) between people. Alas: at the same time, there seems to be a parallel desire to keep populations ignorant or misinformed, at least by certain regimes: information flows are suppressed.

2. A second driver for digitisation is certainly economic. This has two aspects: firstly, digitisation and increasing use of information and communication techologies (ICTs) seems to be understood to be the way to create new jobs, new possibilities to make money and perhaps even fortunes. This aspiration was dashed at least once, with the dot.com bust in the 1990s: the only people who seem to be making money now are those who are selling the equipment – which needs to be constantly updated and replaced – and the software – although possibilities here seem to be limited with the increased availability of free software and, more importantly, Open Source coding systems. Some online endeavours are financially valued in strange ways, too, which are perhaps difficult to understand. The billions of dollars that Facebook is allegedly worth is, to my mind, a strange phenomenon. But there are still seemingly unlimited opportunities for online merchandising, marketing and retailing, and consultants in social networking marketing seem to be thriving.

The other side of the economic or financial aspect is the possibility for saving money and cost-cutting. This applies not only to the vending of virtual objects such as ebooks or online services (website hosting, for example), which cost little to store and maintain. The replacement of libraries by the internet seems to be a very real possibility for many governments dealing with the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC – which always, for some reason, reminds me of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – BFG). David Cameron‘s present regime in the UK is a good example of this: it extends to replacing large numbers of public servants whose work can, apparently, also be done by citizens using the internet. ICTs continue to be deified as saviours of the world, if one is to believe the rhetoric that is expressed in many government documents, particularly perhaps some of those emanating for the iEurope European Union’s digital economy initiatives.

3.  Digitisation of documents does, however, open doors that were previously firmly shut. The Open Educational Resources University  (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university#Core_initiatives_of_the_logic_model) campaign being led, to all intents and purposes, by Wayne Mackintosh, is a prime example of this. It uses the best characteristics of the ‘information society’ , such as globalisation, to reach scholars and teachers all over the world, in order to create and distribute university learning materials to those who live all over the world – not just in the rich parts – so that they will have access to tertiary education. Surely this is the only way forward, in this dimension? I have mentioned Open Source software; there is also an increased movement towards access to ideas that is possible in a digitised, virtual, networked, information environment: Open Access. This is particularly useful for the dissemination of scholarly information, as well as those documents that are required to support other roles in society, not forgetting entertainment. All of these possibilities, combined with the increasing mobility of ICT devices (smaller and cheaper) and wireless access, may perhaps lead to significant improvements in people’s lives. Some even say that ICTs facilitated the recent political changes we have seen in North Africa.

4. We cannot rule out the possibility that digitisation is also being stimulated by technological determinism. “Oooh! I want to build a twaddler! It’s new! It’s big! It’s shiny!” But what can it be used for? Does it help me? Will it last for ever? Do we need one?  Rather cynically, there does appear to be some of this in a few digitisation initiatives, which have lasted for only as long as the funding has been around – and there doesn’t appear to have been enough reason or purpose to continue the funding. While, for many reasons, I endorse and support – and am enthusiastic about – the purposes to which the digitisation of cultural resources and documents can be put, I am still more than a bit concerned about the long-term prognosis. ‘Digital preservation’ still appears, to me, to be an oxymoron. As well as this, as I have been saying for about two decades, the technology is still very primitive: I don’t think that our clever colleagues in computer science and technologies have come anywhere near to where their work might still take them. Regarding existing technologies as the ‘last word’, or even suggesting that things may stay more or less the same (simply because our imaginations fail us), could mean making a very big mistake indeed.

5. The last aspect of the enthusiasm for digitisation may be motivated by a desire for control (above and beyond any economic or financial considerations). Access to information (or ideas, which I find to be the most useful synonym) has always, and will always be, regarded politically, as ideas may be – and indeed often are – dangerous: at least to the status quo, and especially to those who would be upset or lose out if the status quo were to be disturbed. Paradoxically, digitisation simultaneously provides the possibility for loss of centralised control: the use of Twitter and Facebook in Egypt, for example, or perhaps as a slightly more exaggerated example, WikiLeaks and now UniLeaks (http://www.unileaks.org), which could be seen as serving as the conscience of contemporary society. Citizen journalism – and indeed all social media – are other expressions of this facility. Information, or ideas, no longer have to be sanctioned by those in power or positions of authority: anybody (even me) can say what they like and have the possibility of being heard all over the world. UKUncut ( http://ukuncut.org.uk/blog/26th-march—invite-your-friends) provides  but one example of this.  This may possibly be an unexpected outcome of (4) above: “We invented the twaddler but we didn’t realise it could be used like THIS!”.

Looking forward to hearing from you – and please post comment here and on the Wallwisher!

All the best as ever, wherever you are

S

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