Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

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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.

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My bucket list – for the information professionals

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.

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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

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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.