An article by Dave Cohn came through my reader the other day that hit me right where I live: the intersection between journalism and librarianship.
There are two main parts to the article. Cohn first tells us how newspapers and libraries are part of the industrial age when we’re now in the information age. It only makes sense that these institutions that deal with information will have to change as time goes on.
The way we collect and organize the worlds information has changed. For journalism this is bigger than just switching from print to the web in terms of offering a product. And for libraries this is bigger than just switching off the Dewey decimal system. The way we collect, organize and find information has fundamentally changed to empower more people to take a part in this process. That means our relationship to libraries has changed.
He tosses in the Wikipedia and Google Books reference that I also use when talking about this kind of thing there. Also, note the emphasis on empowering more people to take part in this process. This is kind of the optimistic spin on what Jaron Lanier is lamenting in You Are Not a Gadget (see my review).
One difference between journalists and librarians that he notes is the relative economic shelter that libraries operate under, though my experience with library reorganization and the grasping for stats that went on as they decided which departments could lose hours emphasizes the relativity of that difference.
The other is the one that I’d never thought of.
Librarians don’t see themselves as the creators or defenders of truth. That has never been in their job description. They don’t create anything – they are conduits. They help people find information, truth, facts, etc. Journalists might argue that in the act of reporting they were surfacing new information in the world. Through their work knowledge, facts and truth that was unknown to the world would be exposed and known. The act of reporting and distributing a story was like birthing truth, information and facts into the world.
See, I never got that out of journalism. When I do that journalistic kind of writing (which I haven’t done as much of recently but I’m trained for it) I always felt like a conduit. My best work as a journalist is letting other people talk. Cohn explains how journalists don’t give birth to truth, which seems self-evident to me, but whatever.
Anyway, I bring this all up because it was an interesting thing to read, and he suggests it as an avenue for academic exploration. I know I’ll be thinking about this intersection/comparison. It’s funny how I keep on trying to step into these changing industries. Why not something that has some continuity like baking? When I start up at library school, I’ll be looking for my niche and this might be a good angle for a paper or two. Thanks, Digidave.
Jaron Lanier is a nerd. A computer nerd and a music nerd. He was one of the people who were working on the internet back in the early days (not the real early military days, but the beginning of the Silicon Valley uprising and the dawn of personal computing). So when he writes a book complaining about the way technology and the internet has developed it has a bit more credibility than someone who has trouble with sending an email. That’s what You Are Not A Gadget is about.
There are a couple of things he takes aim at. One is the idea of lock-in. The way programming works is that small programs are easy and can work in ideal ways. As you start making a program do more complicated stuff, you have more complicated code. To make anything work you have to build on top of what has gone before, which is why software is buggy. It’s all the complicated interactions with the way things are already done.
The problem is when we don’t see this lock-in as the result of choices made by people and don’t recognize that things could be done differently. But doing things differently requires tearing everything down again and remaking it. If you want electronic music that is less about discrete notes like a piano and more like a violin, you can’t do that using the programming we have today, because the choice was made that MIDI would act like a keyboard. (I don’t know enough about digital music to know how using recording samples works in this context.) If you want your digital sound to sound like a violin you have to make the file go against how it was designed. You are adapting to the technology rather than having the technology work for you.
He also talks about the file metaphor, which is so ingrained into how we think of information because of our computers. We don’t think of clusters or smears of information; we think of discrete chunks that can be manipulated. When we summarize ourselves down into these clumps of interests and employers for the vast database that is Facebook, he argues that we are diminishing ourselves as humans, making ourselves more like the computers so that we can pretend they’re getting smarter.
The other big thing he gets mad at is the idea of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia and Linux are fine for what they do, but he argues that the whole design by hivemind will never create anything really wonderful. It’s good at refining, but not at helping us live up to our potential as innovators. Back in the day the pioneers of the internet wanted to see what awesome new art could be created with all these connections. A dodgy encyclopedia and a refined version of UNIX were not the pinnacles of their dreams. The things that change our lives aren’t designed by the hivemind. He laments the passing of the old idiosyncratic days of the web, where things were ugly, but you had the chance of finding something new. Nowadays when you’re doing casual research how often do you just grab whatever that first wikipedia result is? The future looks more and more like a “one book library” and it doesn’t need to be.
There are also bits about cephalopods, our nostalgic music culture and the economic crisis (the book was released in 2010, so it’s timely enough). It was a great read, and will be good contrarian fuel for discussions about the future of technology.