|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
and Searchers On, Of, In, or Out of line
Stephen E. Arnold — President, Arnold Information Technology
The blessing is the near universal awareness of online information. A person unaware of the Internet, Yahoo!, Webcams, and the thousands of other inventions of the last 2-3 years would have had to be living in a cave with a broken laptop and a disabled dial-up connection.
The curse comes from the same state of ubiquity online has now reached. When a third grade class in Omaha searches online and engages in video conferences with their peers in Osaka, where’s the cachet in online for professional searchers? In 1981, a person had to be tough, smart, and darn tenacious to even get online. Relevant results required Herculean or maybe Athenian efforts. Remember thermal paper?
Enough of this reminiscing around the screensaver pumping real-time news to MBAs who think they invented online research. The time is propitious for people with certifiable expertise in information science, library systems, collection development, and library science to consider their future. Why in the age of information plenty should an “info pro” say, “What, me worry?” Keep reading and pay attention. There’s an examination question before we rip the veil from the future.
The chat function goes global [www.gooey.com]
Everyone’s a reader, everyone’s a writer
Commentary goes Web-wide [www.thirdvoice.com]
Live people or 3-D [www.archvision.com]
A short list of a few “new” rules
I Was Wrong in the ’50s and
I’m Probably Wrong Now
In grade school, our sixth grade teacher asked our class to write about the year 2000. My mother (an archivist to the core) saved my paragraph. In clumsy cursive, I wrote in 1955:
“In Year 2000, cars will fly. No one will get sick. School will be fun. I will have time to read all day.”
Almost a half-century later, I can see that each of my observations was dead wrong. Cars don’t fly; their average speed in most urban areas is about that of a horse-drawn cart in 1880. People (including me) find themselves fighting aging and microbes.
In another in a long line of millennial moments, the impossibly handsome Stone Phillips told me that New York City had launched an all-out, helicopter-delivered attack on mosquitoes believed to be vectors for meningitis.
Schools (lamentably) are still schools, bells, books, and vandals. Today, the weapons are different. My 1955 classmates favored spitballs. On the Saturday night before the millennium, students prefer flat black, semi-automatic, Glock 9mm hardware. The color compliments a Bart Simpson outfit, worn with a baseball cap on backwards, or a tasteful silver eyebrow and nose ring in sterling silver.
Within the last week or two, the U.S. government reported that it discovered computer resources are distributed unevenly. People with money or the good luck to live in affluent school districts have greater access to things digital. We can still ask: “Who will do better work? A bright lass with access to computers, the Internet, and parental support or a bright lass wondering where her next meal will come from?” The U.S. government figured it out via a study.
Anyone who doesn’t grasp that comfort and skill in things computer fill life with digital delights will not inhibit a person’s quest for enlightenment, a job, or leisure time.
My final sentence haunts me. As James Gleick demonstrates with a certain glee, life is moving faster. “Time to read all day” I wrote. I look at Web pages, scan articles, draft reports, get feedback, and make corrections. But “read all day?” The millennial whirl, the great convergence, the “being digital” — all conspire to unleash paradoxes.
I often begin formal
lectures with a list of important technologies. But the list is simply
a way to call the audience’s attention to the innovations that I will not
discuss. There is scarcely time to catalog a tiny fraction of the interdependent
technologies popping into view, working their magic, and then submerging
themselves in the witches’ cauldron of “convergence.”
Important Technologies to
Let me give you a taste of the technological brew boiling in that alchemist’s cauldron in cyberspace:
Finally, I want
to step back and offer seven rules. These are rules with a twist. Each
rule has a flip side or an opposite rule. Does this sound confusing, contradictory,
paradoxical? Of course. The new millennium will be the same mixed up, topsy-turvy
world all the others have been throughout humanity’s transit in time.
Four “Engine” Technology Clusters
Let us avoid a squabble over the meaning of “revolution.” Technology in general and information technology in particular cannot revolt. For years, I believed that online information was dynamic, but it certainly wasn’t alive. I was wrong again, because the present digital environment or “ecosystem” has some unusual characteristics. Frankly, I don’t know a word that sits comfortably between “revolution” and “evolution.” But in places where a fair number of people live with computers or computer-like devices, network connections, resources, or a sugar plum fairy to pay the bills, and sufficient mental horsepower to get the gizmos working. our world is behaving in interesting ways.
In the absence of a good word to describe our near-millennial moment, here’s a checklist of technologies that work like coal in a steam engine.
1. Connectivity/Dial Tones
Persistent connections, an Internet “dial tone,” a pervasive network. What makes connectivity so powerful is that you can plug anything in anyplace with a suitable infrastructure. Copper wire, cable services, satellite uplinks and downlinks, cell, fiber, and literally dozens of other distribution technologies set the stage for a world in which everything has an Internet address.
I am not sure I want to check my e-mail while I wait for the microwave to heat a cup of chicken soup, but manufacturers of appliance white goods have online fever. If recipes appear on the front of a refrigerator, let’s hope that the display type is large enough for the oldsters like me to read. If it has a child-proof safety warning, let’s hope they put it low enough for the precocious child standing 3-feet-high to read.
Appliances, motor vehicles of all types, a mind-boggling array of wearable, portable multifunction devices will link to the Internet. Toss in a GPS system, and a worried father can watch the progress of his daughter’s first date on the flat panel display that makes up the middle class American’s family room. She doesn’t have to call and say, “We are running late because of traffic.”
The parent can send a real-time audio-video “chat” to tell the daughter how to avoid the traffic congestion on I-5 and arrive home on time. Never mind about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this environment. Without infrastructure, the pervasive network doesn’t exist. With the infrastructure in place, there will be a communications-rich environment. No infrastructure means less richness.
The online world will not serve all people, cities, regions, and countries equally well. It will be very unpleasant to be on the wrong side of connectivity. In a world with digital connectivity acting like a magnet for opportunity and money, being unplugged or non-digital creates a highly explosive social mixture.
What can one do with an online dial tone? KCSL (Toronto, Ontario) is one of what will soon be hundreds of companies developing dial-tone applications. The firm’s X-Portal combines 22 reference books (a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas, a compendium of facts, and 18 other sources) plus agent technology. A user browsing the Internet with Internet Explorer 5.x or writing a memorandum in Word 2000 can click on a term. Like a spelling checker, X-Portal provides access to a definition, a synonym, or a fact. In parallel, software agents query the Web, retrieve pages germane to the user’s question, and display the results when the user clicks.
Products like X-Portal
(which may or may not meet commercial success) exploit the ubiquity of
Windows and Web access. Innovators exploit the network as an operating
and information system. In terms of search and retrieval, the scope for
invention is for all practical purposes quite broad. What will be the “killer
app” for these new dial tones? If I knew, I would be Bill Gates.
Scot McNealy, the prescient leader of Sun Microsystems, said, “The network is the computer.” He was right, and the accuracy of his statement grows with each passing day. As I write, Microsoft Corporation announced that it would create versions of its popular Office suite to run on network servers.
As individual personal computers find their way into battery powered organizers, it makes more and more sense to provide applications from centralized points in the network. Each device does not have to have its own copy of certain programs. When it needs a service or function, the device fetches it from the server. Overworked information technology managers can focus on keeping larger numbers of incredibly complex servers working and forget about the tens of millions of individual personal computers that require upgrading, tweaking, and reinstalling to work these days.
With the network performing the functions of application software and providing data pipes, “networking” works like a blow torch to burn the walls that formerly separated many business sectors. In 1986, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems did not compete. Now, the companies are on a collision course. The same tectonic forces pushing Sun Microsystems (primarily a maker of high-end servers) and Microsoft (mainly a software company) at each other are sending publishing companies (Thomson, Pearson) on a collision course with training and education operations (Stanford University/Highwire, Josten’s). Similar confrontations seem increasingly likely between media giants (Bertelsmann, Time Warner Viacom, Disney) and telecommunications companies (Global Crossing, AT&T).
When continents collide, house trailers and poorly built structures suffer. The African proverb “When elephants fight, only the grass suffers” captures the spirit if not the force of these impending events. “Convergence” is not the right word for the impact of networking.
If we peer into the future, the concept of network computing, not personal computing, suggests several developmental paths:
3. Structured Documents/Content
The millennial reader is probably thinking, “I can relate to this ‘worlds in collision’ argument, but structured documents? Who is this guy trying to kid?”
In the hoary Ice
Age of the 1970s, online meant access to structured documents. The “documents”
comprised pathetically brief clumps of data.
The record had an accession number, an author field, a title field, a date field, a couple of dozen other fields, and maybe an abstract of 20 or even 100 words.
For the information scientists who struggled with a 5x8-inch note card shoehorned into the tiny memory of a mainframe, this basic structured record was the first digital life form. Like a single-cell creature swimming in the primordial soup, these online databases brought form and content to information retrieval.
The emergence of 12-year-olds who can happily save an Excel spreadsheet in HTML within Office 2000 solves one of the major problems in content. Until now, most documents were unstructured, locked in proprietary formats on media that some people saw as Frisbees, not 8-inch floppies for a Burrough’s mainframe.
With Standard Generalized Markup Language dressed up in “Gen X” ML clothing, virtually all digital content will become more accessible than at any other time. Web indexers, intranet portals, and extranet e-commerce services will ingest files with metadata, perform necessary conversions, and complete the task at hand.
Even language problems, difficulties with non-text objects, and the looming avalanche of digitized video will be shaped by structured document technology. Not all of the ugly tasks associated with electronic content will magically disappear in a twinkling. For many applications, software systems will help make certain that reuse of content and locating documents or nuggets of information on a particular topic will require less and less Herculean effort.
The notion of finding information is mired in the scriptorium of Mont-St-Michel. An Inktomi spider works like a digital monk. It finds a source. It reads the source. It makes an entry in an index. It stuffs the index into a nook. The monk has dinner; the spider times out due to a network latency problem.
With “tags” embedded in objects, the problem of finding information becomes somewhat easier. Automatic indexing systems today read, or try to read, all the “words” in the document. With metatags, the indexing engine reads the index and skips the mishmash of bits that comprise 15 minutes of Marcy and Tom’s wedding at Big Bear.
Where will this digital librarian magic take place? In the system, of course. With increased computational capability, when the digital camera is aimed, sensors will read who, what, why, and where. Digital objects will carry the embedded data. When uploaded, other system level agents will note the date, time, location, circumstance. Other software will scan digital artifact using tools from Media Access (Israel) or some other firm. The result will be a file that has all sorts of useful indexing metatags accompanying it. It is far easier to set up systems that know what content is available and to pass that information to software that pays attention to what specific users or clusters of users require. There will always be room for handcrafted indexes, directories, and reference tools.
However, information efficiency and seamless indexing bring along their own set of challenges. Copyright, security, reuse, and ownership will become more important. Clearly anything created in one of the digital devices will behave as if built into a well-formed database, highly consistent, and permanently “readable” by any device able to plug into the pervasive network.
Content on the
network will be as accessible as if parked in one of the optimized, structured
database systems honed and polished by the Neanderthals at Dialog, BRS,
and SDC, among others, in online’s Stone Age. I am confident that we will
get the best of the “old” and the “new” for text, audio, image, and video
4. Real-Time Content Creation
In the 9th century, content creation involved copying classics or what was left of them. By the 1970s, content creation was in the hands or fingers of specialists who constructed articles, books, or compilations of facts in a work process essentially unchanged since the Dark Ages.
Visit Amazon.com. Who creates the reviews? What’s the content of NBC’s high-traffic Xoom.com (see Figure 2)? Where do these content-rich sites get their information? The content comes from individuals who provide it to the sites. NBC, of course, supplements this “grassroots” content with industrial-strength-branded content from the NBC organization as well as other “branded” content sources.
The turn of the millennial screw may create a world without editors. The real-time communication environment is a publishing medium when viewed from a certain angle. A writer of e-mail spending time in a federal prison understands fully that digital archives, like paper archives, persist through time.
What is unique about the millennial information environment is that the concept of “time,” as it relates to creating, formatting, and offering it to other online users, is decreasing from a lag of a few minutes to no discernible delay. The e-mail message keyed or spoken in a second of adrenaline-charged emotion becomes a Rosetta Stone for unlocking the secrets of business dealings, personal behavior, or transfer of information from a fully private space to a somewhat more public setting. This is not President Nixon fumbling with a tape recorder. This is a hellaciously big server parked at a secure facility in Herndon, Virginia, holding terabytes of content in a cache. Yikes. Everyone’s an author using paper that can last a long time ... and be found by keyword or concept in metatags.
In the early 1980s, the editor of this magazine challenged Dun & Bradstreet and several other commercial database companies to allow “users” to annotate records. [Barbara Quint, “Bon Voyage,” Database Searcher, vol. 5, no. 10, November/December 1989, pp. 4-6; available through The Gale Group’s Trade and Industry Database on Dialog (File 148), LEXIS-NEXIS, Factiva Publications Library, et al.]
The information industry executives responded with the glassy stare of a drugged bull at a Roman god’s holiday sacrifice. There was no comprehension of the request and no clue about how to deliver in situ editing and updating.
Millennial reader, log onto AOL or Yahoo! One click and you will see a real-time widget that lets one post, communicate, annotate, and almost any other kind of “-ate” one might want to do in a digital space. A free browser plug-in called Third Voice allows you both to attach annotations and critiques to any page on the Web [http://www.thirdvoice.com] (see Figure 3).
Editors with worn elbows, green eyeshades, and glossy seats on their Dacron pants bemoan content created by anyone other than a journalist trained at a “real journalism school.” But these editors never envisioned:
Professional Level Impact
In sports, the “professional level” means big bucks and the athletes who do something better than everyone else in the world. In the NBA, there are about 60 job openings a year. With the world shifting to an information-centric ecosystem, what then becomes the payoff for the professional-level information person?
Consider Bill Gates. He is a good example of what one can do with electronic information and a bit of the old marketing razzle dazzle. If we drop down a notch from the richest man who ever trod this green earth, the payoff in the millennium for information professionals is good.
Opportunity exists to start a company. Big paydays await the person who can find virtue in venture capitalists and lawyers.
Companies, regardless of size, crave information professionals. It helps to hone network-related skills and solve problems important to managers at these outfits. Make the grade and you can craft a reasonable life in an organization.
The intellectual payoff is considerable. Information professionals have their hands wrapped around the heart of the new millennium’s economy. For many years, database meant “backroom drone.” Now, database means “e-commerce engine” or “platform for real-time data acquisition and analysis for sell through.”
The rapid expansion of the information space in modern society leaves room for information professionals with highly specialized skills. Though it is highly unlikely that traditional brick-and-mortar libraries will disappear, ”click-and-mortar” libraries will inevitably flourish.
In short, unlike the prophets of doom who say that traditional programs in information science are out of step with the times, I see some bright spots. Because the person entering college in 2000 will come steeped in the digital environment, a traditional class in cataloging will be understood and refracted through the student’s digital filter. Even if the instructor says, “Catalog using these 3x5 cards with a real ink pen and a manual typewriter,” the student will use his or her laptop to build the database, output the data in a suitable font, and print everything on Very’s handy perforated 3x5 card stock.
The ability to think about information is more important than the tools used to communicate the basic techniques of information. This means that people with training in information systems, databases, and even indexing will adapt to the opportunity space created by the four technology suites described above. Sure, some people with training in database administration will end up working at a fast-food restaurant. But that is not the fault of the content they learned or did not learn.
Training in information means a round trip ride on the digital gravy train. Who wants to become a medical doctor when one can build a Web-based solution and solve an interesting problem? The answer, “A very good information professional.”
Here’s a checklist of new opportunities for people with formal training in information science or library science:
To wrap up my vision of the new millennium in a bow, I promised to review what I call the “new rules.” What makes these new rules interesting is their flexibility, as rules go. Old rules were not flexible at all. One of the characteristics of the information ecosystem is the need for malleable rules. The Chinese seers remind us that, in a strong wind, the willow tree does not break. In the new millennium’s information ecosystem, flexible rules survive.
For a short list of a few “new” rules, see the table on page 96.
As rules go, these will probably not end up in the Internet equivalent of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. However, they do illustrate a very important point: The technologies in the millennium give shape and form to a paradoxical world.
In the Middle Ages, people had a great chain of being to order life. In 2000 and beyond, the great chain can be just about anything any single person wants to see it as. For some people, the Internet is a death sentence. Companies unable to figure out what to do with the network environment will surely find Darwinian competition making life nasty, brutish, and short. Others will thrive like kudzu.
What’s ahead? Let me close with a handful of observations:
await information professional in the days ahead. And that’s the most conservative
prediction I will ever make. Who said online information and librarianship
were dull? Neither ever have been, but now everyone knows.