Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

Image via Wikipedia

I am so happy that I am not alone in my take on the Paradiso Conference, although the Conference itself is not mentioned.  Not only has an Open Letter been written to the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation (Máire Geoghegan-Quinn), but, to date, over 10,000 people from across Europe have signed it.

This letter, which you can view at http://www.eash.eu/openletter2011/index.php?file=openletter.htm , is  entitled “Horizon 2020: Social Sciences and Humanities research provides vital insights for the future of Europe”.  

The letter points out what Blind Freddy can see: that European society is complex and diverse, and it is more appropriate to talk about ‘societies’ and ‘cultures’ in the plural, rather than the singular.  This in turn suggests that there is no ‘One size fits all’ strategic plan, economic model or financial solution that can possibly be the most appropriate for all the countries in Europe, particularly those who are already members of the European Union.  The ongoing financial crisis in Greece (which is largely about banks not losing money, rather than austerity or poverty experienced by the people of Greece) has provided a very clear example of this.

This letter encourages creative responses to the question of what Europe will look like in the future, given current (and historical) events.  While there is little doubt that there will be change and transitions, as is pointed out, in the final analysis it is the people – of Europe and elsewhere in the world – that should be the focus of all debate, and their well-being the goal to be achieved.  I sometimes think that ‘strategy planners’ forget such simple facts, and assume that’s what is good for them (their companies or banks or governments or whatever) will somehow, by default, be good for the population at large.  We know this is untrue, as we see corporations scurrying to make profits for their shareholders (some of whom are us!) rather than considering the environment or any other short or long term ethical issue.

As far as academia is concerned, and the information professions in particular, this letter raises important issues.  For example, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work is encouraged in order to deal with the complex problems that we face: none of the ‘disciplines’ – whatever they are – has the vision, knowledge, methodologies or skills to imagine and put into place suitable solutions on its own.

In particular, it seems to be generally forgotten that ‘change’, whenever it is mentioned, is only important to us if societal change will occur – as a stimulus or a response to, for example, changing medical practices or changing technologies.  We are only interested in change, for the most part, if it will affect our lives in some way: our work, the education of our children, or where we will take our holidays.  If changes occur within a praxis (for example, new techniques for hip replacements) we would only be interested if, for example, either we or somebody we knew were to undergo such a procedure.

Those who praise technology as the most important, or perhaps even the only, agent of change have sadly completely misunderstood what the question was: particularly those who are designing technologies for problems or events that don’t yet exist, where they hope the technology will bring such phenomena or entities into existence.  And this is not to say that this doesn’t happen – look at the internet generally, and Google and Facebook in particular.  But I am fairly certain that none of those involved with the development of these had any idea how they might be used and, indeed, are used quite differently from what they may have imagined.

As the Open Letter points out, we cannot let the future be determined solely by the technologists: a number of challenges (and perhaps the most important ones) fall well within the bailiwick of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).  And that, fellow information professionals, means us.  These areas include, as noted in the Letter, education, gender, identity, intercultural dialogue, media, security, and social innovation (to name but a few).  The Letter notes that it is the “key behavioural changes and cultural developments” which should concern us: “changing mindsets and lifestyles, models for resilient and adaptive institutions” are mentioned as examples.  The authors call this challenge “Understanding Europe…” and believe it is as important as other challenges such as food and transport.  They state, “a climate of sustainable and inclusive innovation in Europe can only be established, if European societies are conscious of their opportunities and constraints – this knowledge is generated by Social Sciences and Humanities research”.

It is time, I think, for all information professionals to consider carefully, and to articulate, how they see their societal role.  This is as important for the world as it is for individual professional futures.

Framing Paradise in Europe

Amelia Andersdotter, Swedish Pirate Party

Image via Wikipedia

PARADISO. a word bursting with promise, was chose as the title of a conference at which to discuss the future.  Subtitled, Ínternet and future societies’, it was never exactly clear whether the intent was to discuss what the present internet is, what the future internet might be, or even which societies were involved.  On one hand, the conference was being held under the auspices of the European Commission and indeed, under their very roof: Charlemagne at Schuman, shorthand for the acre or two in Brussels which is the power seat (or so the bureaucrats would like to think) of Europe: the location of the European Councail, Parliament and Commission.  http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/  .  All the presentations available can be found at: http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/agenda/.

The photo above is of one of the most interesting speakers at this conference, a Member of the European Parliament representing the Swedish Pirate Party.  Her presentation is unfortunately not available on the official Paradiso website.  Her name is Amelia Andersdotter.

Interestingly, the conference was free and open to all: all those, of course, who could be in Brussels for three days in early September.  Registration was limited to 450 attendees, thereby excluding the other 6,999,999,550 for whom attendance was impossible for one reason or another.  It was no surprise therefore to find that the majority of attendees were from Brussels itself (surely the bureaucratic capital of the world) and furthermore, that at least 30% of the attendees were invited speakers.  The majority of these were representatives of the EU in one form or another, CEOs or owners of IT companies.  For decency’s sake, a few representatives of the social sciences were invited:  amongst these, Philippe Quéau, Representative of UNESCO to the Maghreb; Ruben Nelson, Executive Director, Foresight Canada;  Lynn St Amour, President & CEO, The Internet Societyand Australian Genevieve Bell, Director, Interactions and experience research, Intel Labs.   For the post part, the attitude that became evident during the conference was epitomised by a quotation from Wired which Angela Hariche of the OECD offered:

Google‘s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough.  No semantic or causal analysis is required. Wired 2008

Unfortunately, I missed the opening evening, and so cannot comment on that.  The winner of an international children’s drawing competition was announced, in which children from several countries (a strange selection of these…) were asked to depict the internet of the future.  For the most part, the children showed that they are as human as the rest of us: they are unable to predict the future but rather, at best, extrapolate from and exaggerate characteristics of the present.  One picture was, in particular, quite alarming: a person which his back to us is placed in front of a screen which shows a female characteri behind a desk.  She is surrounded by symbols of commercial concerns: FaceBook, Twitter, MSN.  The enquirer is clearly cast as subsidiary and trivial, a supplicant at the altar of technology, in need of its blessing and, at the same time, a consumer of ICT and its products.

The presentations  from the conference are downloadable from the link mentioned above, as mentioned, as so they are not duplicated here.  Please read them as you may well disagree with what I have to say here, which constitutes my impressions and opinions only.  Overall, it was hard to determine the purpose of the conference.  I was labouring under the delusion that it was a forum for discussion; a place where those who had studied the issue: the intersection between ICTs and society.  Sociologists considering social change, futurologists, and perhaps developers of advanced technologies discussion their design and use processes in order to bring about the social ‘development’ and ‘progress’ of society.  Was this the place to start piecing together the many bits of the complex mosaic so that a clear image of the future and how to achieve it would emerge?  But rather than identifying and dealing with the challenges that we are currently facing, I came away with quite different impressions.

The mindset of the majority of the speakers, participants and attendees seemed to be still strongly located in an industrialist, late capitalist/consumerits, modernist or ‘scientific’ world view.  Either they are unaware of, or do not wish to recognise, that different models exist and may perhaps be more useful, given the theme of the conference.  It seemed as if the speakers were invited particularly in order to convince the policy-makers in the Brussels bureaucracy what budgets they should consider for the issues they identified: issues that largely explored what developments their companies could undertake and, furthermore, that their companies (or committees) would be able to meet the challenges of the contemporary world successfully, as they had already created and could deliver solutions.

No magic wand was evident.

Perhaps (and caveat: I am cynical) the devout wish of the organisers and participants (for the most part) was to give the illusion of providng an open public and transparent platform at which all interested parties could express their views, debate and reach consensus, although the real (obscured?) intent was to ensure the continued funding of ICT projects in the EU.  The use of public monies for such purposes was not questioned, in spite of the present economic problems of the world, and particularly the Eurozone.  In other words, ‘problems’ were viewed selectively and not holistically.

The list of the ‘problems’ with which ‘society’ is now confronted was chanted as a liturgy by nearly every speaker: climate change, the financial crisis and political confusion, amongst them.  Of course, the solution – or the keys to paradise to continue the metaphor – is ICTs, particularly as conceived and executed by the interested parties.  ‘Research’ appeared to refer to the development of new technologies, and it was an outcome devoutly to be wished that the EC would supply a budget robust enough to support such ‘research’.  Strangely – to me, anyway – problems such as unemployment and joblessness, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, and even education (no, not even elearning) were not mentioned.

Nor were solutions to specific problems offered, except for it being suggested that a more interactive, participative democracy may be possible using the internet.   This was particularly ironic for me, because as a member of the LinkedIn Paradiso Group, I have made a couple of comments in the discussion surrounding the event, only to discover that not only have they all be deleted, but I have been expelled from the group!  While I could have guessed that the organisers may feel omnipotence as they are, after all, setting out to change the world, I did believe that open discussion was a pretty important part of contemporary and future life, never mind paradise or other utopias.

Another element of confusion was the geographic focus.  It appeared as if there would be an emphasis on Europe, but alas, here too I was mistaken, confusing ‘geographic’ focus for ‘economic’ focus.  There were representatives from the United States, China and India.  And the mobile phone situation in Mali was discussed, if only to illustrate how it was possible (although I am sure seldom exercised) to access the internet from an old mobile phone.  My experiences in Africa, having spent the best part of 4 decades there, suggest that few people use mobile phones for internet access, and even fewer have smartphones of any kind.  And the internet is far from easily available or cheap.  And there are questions of literacy etc but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

It’s all very well talking about how ICTs change our lives (in middle-class, affluent, well-resourced populations), as Neelie Kroes did in her opening address, but without being specific, and looking at both the good and bad, such statements are less than meaningless.  It’s not the ICTs, Neelie, it’s what people do with them.  And what do they do with them?  They share ideas (information) across time and space.  Quickly.  And that’s about it.  And it’s not even this that is so very important:  what is most important of all is what people do with those ideas, how they know which ones are useful, which they can trust to make decisions and to act upon, which ideas will help them – in the long run – achieve happiness, act in sustainable ways, or whatever else the current objectives of humans happens to be, as varied and diverse as they (and which include making a profit, controlling people, ensuring safety or whatever).

There were some speakers that hinted that a new way of thinking about the world – and in fact, just thinking, as a new experience – was now required, and I must agree.  Sustainability, well-being and happiness:  can it be that these same people really desire these ends?  Carlo Sessa, President of ISIS, Italy, coordinator of the PASHMINA project and member of the Global Europe 2030-2050 expert group, spoke towards these ends, and his comments were very interesting.  But how may they achieved against the hegemonic backdrop of vested interests and profiteering?

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

Alhambra, Granada

Image by james.gordon6108 via Flickr

 

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.

 

My bucket list – for the information professionals

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose I had better make it quite clear what I mean by ‘information professionals’, and also that I do not think they are necessarily looking at their impending demise, in the same way that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson were challenged in the film of the same name.  After having been in this field for some time, of course I have seen changes, but some things have, sadly remained the same since I entered it in 1980: the public ignorance about what we do; the pathetically misogynist caricature that is made of us; the quick and easy belief that we can be supplanted at the drop of an internet connection; failure to understand what lives would be like without access to the materials – and rather more specifically, the ideas – that we make possible as our task.  By ‘information professional‘, I mean those of us who assist in communicating ideas (and feelings, of course) from one human mind to another, regardless of time and distance, in particular by noting how ideas are recorded, and caring for those records to ensure that they can be physically and intellectually accessed as required.

Of course this is vague, general, aspirational, ill-defined and broad: but so, then, is human nature and the ideas and insights that our imaginations and intellects can conceive.  No shame in that.  And of course there is an ongoing shift (possibly evolution) in the ways in which ideas may be represented and recorded, in language and using various physical artefacts.  As humans, we have used sound, sculpture, light exposures on photosensitive materials, mud, blood, plant juices, movements, sounds, colours, stones, egg yolks – just about anything that you can think of, some more permanent than others, in order to do this.  No surprises there.  I don’t remember artists of old debating the pros and cons of lithographs versus oil paintings.

But all of this is utterly redundant and irrelevant if the aspirations in my bucket list are not realised.

1.  We deal with ideas, not books, or, indeed, documents of any kind.  Documents are convenient and secondary, mere facilitators of our goals.  We must be engaged with ideas, understanding, and what we and everybody else think and have thought of reality.

2.  We have a social responsibility to ensure that ideas flow in society as and when they are needed.  We should make our systems as transparent as possible.  Working together will help (a ‘world brain‘ of information professionals).

3.  I don’t want people attracted to the information professions simply because they enjoy reading.  Or even, perhaps, if they imagine themselves as literary.  Literature is only one, very small part, of the ideas with which we must work and with which we must be familiar.

4.  United, we should be able to fashion a compelling argument for people like David Cameron, who should not only fund libraries (and other cultural institutions) generously, but also pour money into schools so that everybody has a good level of functional AND critical literacy.  Education is a basic human right.  Everybody must understand the cultural symbols of their milieu and make sense of them.  Never mind all the distractions about different kinds of literacy: the ability to  ‘read’ any medium, with critical ability, is what the world wants.  AND creativity.  Anything else is going to be really dangerous in the long run.

5.  I want the world to be curious.  This means that even though meeting the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, health) can be very demanding, people will realise that are are more ways in which this can be accomplished if they can learn about what solutions others have come to.  There are many ways to live our lives, and just one of them may make you happy.  (Which, in my view, is the purpose of life).

6.  I want cultural memory institutions to be capable of making life better, and to be recognised for doing so.  And we must work out how this is to be achieved.

Well, this is my Sunday flight of fancy.  I would be really, really, happy if these were to be achieved by a communal effort.

Have a good week, everybody.

Creativity, strategy and innovation – for sheer survival

Advocacy Poster

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.

What is a book and can it change?

The UNESCO logo

Image via Wikipedia

Yes, I know it’s been some time.  Life sometimes gets in the way of living – and writing.  And it’s all a question of priorities, which is prioritised as today’s theme, after I read that the Second UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries will be held in Lombardia, Italy, from 6th to 8th June 2011.  Their focus for 2011 is, importantly for us, “The book tomorrow: the future of the written word”, as ambiguous a title as you are likely to meet anywhere.  Of course, I would love to be there, but Australia is a bit out of the loop for impetuous Italian trips.  But this is clearly going to be an important discussion forum: look at how many organisations are involved: http://focus2011.org/institutions-corporate-bodies/.

Instead, I avidly read some interesting contributions which have already been made pre-conference, which you will find at http://focus2011.org/blog/ , the blog of the Focus 2011 site.    In chronological order, let me make some comments about these contributions.

Abdelaziz Abid outlines the primary objective of UNESCO as to build a knowledge society: an objective supported by the World Digital Library which was launched in 2009.  Clearly there is a strong relationship between knowledge societies, and libraries which provide and promote access to knowledge, and the digital library is understood to be the ‘hub of knowledge societies’.  He expresses the view that digital libraries, by being plugged into networks, provide access to a much wider range of resources than is possible in a traditional library.   He differentiates between the WDL, Europeana and Google Book Search.  as well as describing the construction of the WDL in some detail.

Milagros del Corral suggests that digitisation is changing the ways in which we read and write, as well as the business model of publishing.  He points out that books are no longer static as they can easily be altered or modified (I don’t really agree with this general statement, and he provides no clear example).  He suggests that access may be ‘free’, but this too will depend on a number of factors, not least membershio of some organisation.  A further jumble of almost rhetorical questions follows: Will print be high or low brow in a digital age?  Does e-reading affect our thoughts and the ways our brains work? HOw will digitisaition efforts be financed on an ongoing basis?  How can creative endeavours be taxed?  What is the future of copyright?  To many of these questions, the appropriate answer may well be, “Well, let’s wait and see” as predictions are notoriously inaccurate.  The digitisation of library resources is presented unequivocally as the next stage of ‘library evolution’.

Christian Roblin claims that libraries are now at a crossroads, as they will be a ‘service’ when libraries are ‘without books’.  Other risks include rights determination, long-term partnerships and their sustainability, and disseamination which avoids illegal re-use.   It is the library service itself that is the most problematic area for Roblin, however.  The loss of expertise – such as the librarian’s ability to index materials – now appear extinct and the question then becomes, What can libraries offer in the digital universe?  I, for one, am convinced that libraries never existed in the first place to provide a certain group of people with the opportunity to index monographs.

Copyright remains an important problem in the digital age, and this is addressed by Esther Wojicki.  She associates the Creative Commons movement (an initiative of Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson and James Boyle) as deeply associated with the digital age, as digitised materials cannot be controlled in the same way as physical materials.  She states that, “Copyright is based on a fundamental purpose of creation of more knowledge and culture”, which is one way of looking at it which is refreshing.  Having said that, however, she asks whether different publishing formats or digital genres may ned different copyright laws, a suggestion that does not seem to be consistent.

The biography of a book, the contribution made by Prashant Narekuli, led me to anticipate an analytical bibliographic approach.  Indeed, he begins by suggesting that ebooks have been designed to resemble ‘real’ books as closely as possible.  This is seen as a good thing, allowing people to embrace the new technologies easily, even though this has prevented an imaginative consideration of other ways in which contemporary technologies could be used.  For some reason, he suggests that new devices should come with health warnings, similar to those found on packets of cigarettes.  I fail to understand the connection nor the point he is making.

The future of reading (and writing) is explored further by Dr Sok-Ghee Baek.  Apart from the cliched notion of a ‘paradigm shift’, what is considered here is not only a complete break from printed to digital books, but some kind of oppositional tension between the two formats, based on the need for a suitable business model.  On the one hand, he argues, people use digital media because they are easy to use, but on the other, ‘traditional paper books will continue to be a core companion’.  So, which is it, Dr Baek?  This is rather inconclusive.  Much of the rest of his piece is devoted to a description of the situation in South Korea, accmonpanied by statements such as ‘Technology will continue to develop in the future’, ‘International solidarity is also needed for copyrights protection’, and ‘digital publication and digital reading have become problems in reality’ (really?  how?).  Baek does not seem to support the idea that ‘reading is reading is reading’ (thank you, Gertrude Stein) – whether a digital or analogue document is used to support the activity.

A view from Japan is presented by Haruok Tsujita, describing the Japaneses as early embracers and adopters of a range of technologies.  In spite of this, he believes that ebooks should imitate as closely as possible the traditional formats of books to which we have become accustomed, even though there are advantages to be exploited for various groups, such as the visually impaired.

Copyright is again addressed, this time by Peter Brantley.    In this model, the ‘author’ must be redefined, as this could be the software engineer, the participant user who customises his/her experience, or even the provider of the facility.  It is this latter role that the library is thought to assume.  He concludes that the technologies could (and should) merge the roles of the writer and readre, composer and artist and so forth: an idea not dissimilar (albeit at rather a different level) to Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’.

A rather more pragmatic view – on training in the production and distribution chain – is addressed by Aida Diab, as it is thie changes in this ‘chain’ that demands a new organisation.  The word ‘evolution’ is used again here, implying not only the notion of progress and improvement, but also of reification and inevitability.  She suggests that ther should be a ‘new approach’ which is ‘more focused on content than product’, and by this I assume she means the intellectual content as opposed to the physical format.  In the list of important things that ‘must’ be done, there is talk of ‘managemnet tools’, ‘new economic models’, ‘exploitation of free-of-charge licenses and creative commons’, ‘model the financial impact’, and of course adapting to ‘evolutions on an everyday basis’, which I am sure Darwin would find rather surprising.  This sentence epitomises this contribution for me: “By mastering the new production chain, we can augment considerably the commercial potential and the visibility of the editorial offer while sustaining innovation” which explains, to me anyway, absolutely nothing at all about the future of the book.

Then there is the question of whether digitisation is good, bad or indifferent, a topic tackled by Anand Bhushan.  Sensibly, the relationship between costs and benefits is raised, and two benefits are suggested: increased access and preservation.  ‘Digital preservation’ has always seemed to me to be rather an oxymoron.  ‘Increased access’ is also dubious, if you consider all the impediments that still exist for so many people on the planet: lack of electricity, lack of technical skill, no equipment, illiteracy and expensive internet connections, just to start.  So we are really talking about increased access for an elite to possibly the most ‘highbrow’ or elite materials – the cultural heritage which, it is considered by various people for various reasons – is worthy of being digitised.  The usual litany of problems with digitised documents is also raised: possibilities for privacy; different physical reading experience; technical incompatabilities, recondite technological tricks and , interestingly, energy consumption.  He continues by discussing which genres of literature are worth digitising: science fiction, poems, short stories…  As if reading is only associated with entertainment and leisure…

Janet Murray sensibly opens her contribution by stating that that “here is nothing sacred about print”.  Of course, this was not true historically, and for the illiterate, ‘print’ remains as inaccessible as anyting else sacred.  She makes the useful point, though, that books are merely a medium of representation, as are computers, and that electronic or digital representation is inherently different as an alternative, particularly because of the possibilities for modification and interactivity between author and reader.  She maintains – and quite rightly, in my view – that “books will not disappear with the advent of digital genres”.  What is less clear is the ways in which ebooks might ‘evolve’ as we become more familiar with the capabilities of the technologies, and as new technologies develop which are as yet unimagined.

It is this last (and most recent) piece with which I concur.  In accordance with the definitions which I have previously suggested, it is rather foolish to consider the ‘book’ as a monograph or, perhaps even more specifically, as a codex.  If knowledge is what we know, and information is what we choose to share with people, and which we must represent in abstract symbols that are granted meaning only within a cultural context, and further, if a document is a container in which we can record that information, abstracting it still further by representing it in ‘writing’, so that our ideas (‘information’) can overcome spatio-temporal constraints), of course there is a future for the book.  Whether it is digital or printed on paper is quite immaterial: all we, as librarians and information professionals, are concerned with, is facilitating the flow of information (‘ideas’) from one person to another, across space and time.  Yes, the new technologies will make us think of what we do in a different way, but our purpose and objectives remain the same, as does our belief that information is transformative.  We believe, as an article of faith, that receiving ideas and understanding them, making meaning of them, assists us (and others) in our life’s journeys.  Whether we receive that information, or those ideas, by radio, morse code, comic book, newspaper, movie, Blu-Ray or 3D television really doesn’t matter, even though we do know that communication mediated by technologies may affect meaning in some ways, and demand new ‘literacies’.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, perhaps I’m not that sorry that I’m missing this discussion.  The core of the issue has not yet been identified, in these contributions at least, but perhaps the appointed speakers will have ideas that demand further attention.

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

Picture of italian philosopher Luciano Floridi

Image via Wikipedia

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].