A few weeks ago, a library member asked me to help her sign up for Facebook to find her kid. This is something I’m never entirely sure if I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, technically this takes up a bunch of time, and it’s not directly connected with our library resources. But really, for a lot of people who use our public internet computers I’m the public equivalent to the family member who can reset grandma’s VCR (which was not my job in our family – thank goodness for actually techy cousins). So I help with this kind of thing fairly often.
This particular instance was kind of interesting because the library member wanted to get rid of her Hotmail address before getting back into Facebook. For people who don’t use these tools all the time there’s a lot more disposability to these identities, which I find interesting. I mean, I wouldn’t trash an email address just because I forgot my Facebook password, but people do it.
I talked to her about how she didn’t need to delete her Hotmail account just to get onto Facebook again, but she was adamant, so I helped her do it. But before doing that I did manage to explain how we should set up a separate email address first. The idea of having two email addresses to be able to authenticate each other is a stumbling block I run into a lot with our library members especially because so many of them don’t have phones to get texts for authentication codes modern web authentication likes to use.
I asked her if she wanted a different Hotmail address and she didn’t. I suggested setting up a Gmail account and she had this visceral reaction against Google. I didn’t press on about it, but am interested in why this non-technologist grandmother really didn’t want to be associated with Google. Because of that reaction though, and because I’d gathered she didn’t use her email very often and basically just needed it to get on Facebook, I suggested setting her up with a Lavabit account, and she was fine with that.
So Lavabit was a very secure email provider (the one that Edward Snowden used) but they had a small free account option, which would work for this member’s purposes. We got her set up and then used it as her Facebook login, and I was pleased to be able to teach someone a bit about email and how it works.
Now, you probably know this already but I have to use the past tense talking about Lavabit, because that Snowden association got Lavabit shut down. They were going to have to comply with US government requests they felt were counter to their values so they shuttered up and are now involved in a big legal fight. And I have kind of created more problems for this library member who I haven’t seen recently if she wants to actually check her email. But she should still be able to get on Facebook, which was all she really wanted.
I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story that I actually want to draw from it. I mean, the obvious lesson is that I should only help people set things up with major corporations’ products because there’s much less chance they’ll disappear. But especially when those corporations are helping to spy on people I feel like I shouldn’t be just handing them naive users. Providing options and alternatives is something I feel strongly about. But most people want something that just works not an education in information policy and privacy, so I should probably be going with simpler tools than better ones?
Bah. I don’t know. If I get the chance I’ll help that member with setting up something to replace her now disabled Lavabit email address and hope my advice didn’t sour her completely on using the tools of the 21st century.
There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”
The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.
And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.
Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.
It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.
This week librarians all over the internet are keeping track of what they do in a day and blogging about it for Library Day in the Life. This happens a couple of times a year and I decided to participate even though I’m not working in a library. My job title is Systems Librarian though, so here we are. Following is what my day looked like.
From Anil Dash’s post If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault:
But as I reflected back on the wonderful, meaningful conversations I’ve had in the last dozen years of this blog, I realized that one of the reasons people don’t understand how I’ve had such a wonderful response from all of you over the years is because they simply don’t believe great conversations can happen on the web. Fortunately, I have seen so much proof to the contrary.
Why are they so cynical about conversation on the web? Because a company like Google thinks it’s okay to sell video ads on YouTube above conversations that are filled with vile, anonymous comments. Because almost every great newspaper in America believes that it’s more important to get a few more page views on their website than to encourage meaningful discourse about current events within their community, even if many of those page views will be off-putting to the good people who are offended by the content of the comments. And because lots of publishers think that any conversation is good if it boosts traffic stats.
Well, the odds are I’ve been doing this blogging thing longer than you, so let me tell you what I’ve learned: When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. It doesn’t have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive.
I wrote about spimes and blogging affordances on librarianautica.
An excellent book about the design of technology and how things work is Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. It’s one of my favourite nonfiction books and it’s all about what our tools allow us to do and make us do. The idea is that technology has moved through different stages through history, affording us different roles.
Sterling traces the history of tools from artifacts (farmers’ tools) to machines (customers’ devices) to products (customers’ purchases) to gizmos (end-users’ platforms) and to the future, which is defined by what Sterling calls Spimes.
A Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities. A universe of Spimes is an informational universe, and it is the use of this information that informs the most exciting part of Sterling’s argument.
The book came out in 2005, but as Foursquare and all the other locative services continue to gain traction, that spimey future looks a lot closer.
In regards to the specific affordances of blogging I find it funny that as Twitter gets taken up, blogging is where people are going to express their lengthy thoughts. Blogging as the means of talking out serious issues instead of just tossing off a couple of one-liners with a good hashtag isn’t something I expected when I began. But blogging is a platform for putting different subject matter into. Twitter is awesome for jokes and conversation. Way better than a blog where you have to go through the monumental effort of publishing your text. It takes multiples of seconds to log in and pick New Post and all that. So terribly slow. (And seriously, as qwerty keyboards on phones are replaced with touchscreens the annoyance of typing out anything more than 140 characters at a time does make Twitter more attractive.)
And then there’s this interesting post on how Twitter beats Google+, which twists the idea of expressing complete thoughts from a single brain further. The thesis there is that G+ isn’t a new enough medium, because storytelling there feels too much like blogging, and isn’t as collaborative as the exquisite corpseishness that is Twitter.
But maybe I’m just a stick in the mud with wanting things to come from one mind and human’s fingers (ignoring the publishing machine behind everything. I like the myth of the heroic individual that’s enabled by the culture of blogging. What about you?
It is an honor and a privilege to be speaking to you today. Because at most commencements, you can talk about following your dream and keep your passion alive. But most of the people you’re talking to are going to build careers sending and receiving e-mail, composing Powerpoint slides, and generating Excel spreadsheets. “Click strong! Thank you very much.”
But you? You have gone to school to pursue a creative vision, and have now acquired the skills to do so. This puts you miles ahead of most recent college graduates, who have yet to realize that skills exist, and that skills matter. Expertise matters. The important work that you build your reputation on – you can’t just Google it. You don’t cut and paste it from Wikipedia. You roll up your sleeves, and bring all your creativity and meaningful skills to bear on the problem of building something.
I haven’t graduated from library school yet, and I’ve never gone to the graduation ceremonies from my previous degrees, so maybe I’m not one to talk about inspiring speeches. But the implication that people who work with spreadsheets and email (and debugging websites) are less deserving of inspiration than design graduates irks me. It irks me even though I’m guilty of it too.
One of the things that gets to me about library work is the lack of creation in it. I mean, yes we work on databases and finding aids and displays and information literacy lessons, which all require being creative, and sure, I can talk the talk about librarians facilitating knowledge creation in a community, but usually that kind of stuff feels hollow to me. It’s just so much rhetoric to make librarians feel better about ourselves, like the debates about professionalism we have at school. I mean, I’m all over being passionate about librarianship; being awesome is great in whatever field you’re in. I don’t want to get kicked out of the cool librarians club I haven’t even joined yet, but I can’t be the only one who finds it kind of natural that creating something that gets collected by a library is better than being the collector.
But. I learned today that I might be heading out to rural Australia next month to train the staff from a health services library system in using Koha. Which I’m kind of excited about. There is expertise involved there too, stuff I’ve gone to school for and have a bit of talent in. It’s an opportunity to go somewhere and see some more stuff. Take me away from nitpicking a website and I can remember I’ve got some passion for this kind of work. I may not be a “creative professional” deserving of an inspirational speech, but as far as day jobs go, this can be a pretty good one.
It’s also kind of great to work at a place that values my abilities and trusts me to go out as their representative into the world. I’ve been here less than two months and I’m still a student, but I’ll get to go on a business trip (inshallah) like I’m a person with a real job. I don’t know how much I want to be a person with a real job, but it’s kind of fun to pretend. Pretending’s part of creation, isn’t it?
I know some people who are scared of the future. Really. Not just in a “We’re living in the end times and Jesus isn’t going to take me ’cause I’m not good enough” kind of way either. People to whom a story like Your Outboard Brain Knows All is deeply terrifying. I don’t think I’m one of them.