|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
I in the Sky: Visions of the Information Future “Marchers in Time,” by Barbara Quint
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay appears as a chapter in I in the Sky: Visions of the Information Future, a compilation of predictions by leading information professionals, edited by Alison Scammell, published by ASLIB, and available from Portland Press in the U.K. for £37.50. However, ASLIB has offered Searcher Magazine readers a generous 20 percent discount when readers mention this fact on their order. [To contact Portland Press, send e-mail to email@example.com, telephone (441206) 796 351, or fax (441206) 799 331.]
Toward the end of the first century of the Second Millennium, a group of English scholars and bureaucrats worked on a memento for the time called the Doomesday Book. Here we are on the edge of the Third Millennium (give or take a week or two), a group of English-speaking men and women (see globalisation, see emancipation) joined in another “doomsday” venture: predicting the future, not just for a mere century but for a millennium. Suicide pills in our pockets, our happy band approaches the task clinging to the knowledge that, unless medical researchers have grossly underestimated their success rate, at least we’ll be long gone before anyone starts sneering at our ridiculous misperceptions.
How can we predict the course of the march of time? Well, first, we should probably watch the marchers. They say that no man is a hero to his valet. Well, no researcher is a hero to their research librarian. In the decades I worked as head of reference at a major policy research organisation, I saw research techniques and methodologies from a broad array of disciplines applied to detecting outcomes of alternative policy options. Some worked rather well, others didn’t. The only predictor that always worked, one way or another, was demographics. People are born, grow, work, mate, breed, sicken, and die, not necessarily in that order.
Some would say that all major trends and developments in human history can be traced to underlying demographic realities. Were there really two World Wars? Or did the horrific casualty rate of World War I simply require 20 years to breed more warriors for the second round? Belief in demographic forces can become quite mystic. In War and Peace, Tolstoy posited that the French invasion of Russia was an inevitable, lemming-like movement of populations, completely independent of the will of Napoleon. Regardless of the intensity of one’s belief in demographic forces, one should never ignore them. They may not determine success, but defying them will certainly insure failure.
In the first quarter-century of the new millennium, the vast swell of post-World War II population that has shaped the history of the last half-century, the Baby Boom generation, will grow old and die. Traumatic and stressful as this inevitable reality will be to individuals and societies, it could have a positive effect on information technology and services. (Every cloud has a silver-haired lining?) As they age and weaken, the Boomers, along with their money and resources, will look for products and services that make their lives easier. With their declining mobility, they will want services delivered wherever they are. Telecommuting is the beginning of the process. Distance learning could play a role. E-commerce is an inevitable winner. (If you play the stock market, bet the pension money on UPS and Federal Express.)
Though the Boomers
may drive such developments, they will not contain them. Their children
and their children’s children and their children’s grandchildren will have
been raised in a world where “fetching” may be an option, but never a necessity.
Think how that can change things.
Think of the changes it will impose on institutions that have defined themselves by place features. One group comes to mind: librarians. We will have to burst out of the buildings that bind us if we plan to prevail in the new information world order. A good first step might be to rename our professional organisations to accurately reflect that the members wear clothes, not landscaping, that they eat food, not interior decorations. After all, a library is just what’s left over when the librarian goes home at night, like a coral reef just represents the activity of living coral.
Of course, demographics are not the only forces in play. Technological developments clearly affect outcome. The juggernaut of computerisation will continue to roll across the globe. Anything that increases ease of use will prevail. Already we see the movement toward the flexibility of flat panels and liberation from wiring. As prices come down (another inevitability), we will soon reach the breakthrough point for book readers of “belly-compatibility,” i.e., a cheap, easily viewable reading device that one can use while lying prone, elbows propped around a supporting pillow, head cradled in hands.
The next major break point for user-friendliness will undoubtedly be fully effective voice input. At that point the computer will have achieved the ultimate data input format — human speech. Combine this development with full multilingual translation and improved world communications and we will have empowered globalisation at a whole new personal level.
If you step back and look at the course of computer development, you see two constant trends. Behind the scenes, engineers and super-techies work continuously to increase the technology’s efficiency, reliability, and power. Up front, however, we see the computer become more and more human. No, we do not refer to the all-too-human capacity for error as expressed in the Y2K controversy. Although one does wonder on what grounds the U.S. Congress could justify an anticipatory bail-out bill for litigation stemming from Y2K problems (“Honestly, judge, it isn’t fair. How could anyone expect Ph.D. engineers to know some other number came after one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?!” ). We refer to the computer as a humanised and humanising force. Computerphobes and writers running dry often ridicule or castigate the nerd herd whose only human contacts take place online. But “let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” (how’s that for a literary bundle for Britain?). Anyone who has used e-mail, listservs, newsgroups, chats, or other virtual community tools knows that they represent a wonderful expansion of human outreach. As a byproduct, they have also revived the art of writing as a popular skill. Project the humanising force of automation onto a global scale after voice input and machine translation have triumphed and you have a person-to-person force that the world will have to reckon with.
All cutting-edge technologies can cut two ways. One reality that will distinguish the next millennium is the loss of forgetting. Imagine living in a world that cannot forget, that remembers and stores everything — every image, every word, every document, every joke, every insult, every message, every call. Are you cringing? Nor can anyone stop the development with policy rulings. That Boomer generation of which we spoke will need universal, intrusive, automated memory to get it through the terrors of Short Term Memory Loss. Once the data, no matter how personal, is accrued, expect it to be shared; in fact, the Boomers will need the data shared. They will have to rely on vendors to resupply their kitchens and bathroom cabinets as their memories fade and harried relatives look for shortcuts in elder care. Once people have developed the habit of relying on computers as memory substitutes, they will never turn back.
Content once accrued will circulate. Look at the cable television if you don’t believe me — all those channels channeling any content they can acquire over and over again. With PC-TV convergence on the way, one can look forward to services that let people pick their decade. A simple scheduling choice and you can spend the next month in the 1950s or the next year in the 1930s.
In fact, old content could create new content. Multimedia developments and advanced computer animation will produce new material from old. Ever wondered whether Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara got back together with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler? Someone could write a sequel and use computer-generated images of the two stars, as they would have appeared in their own time, to generate new performances. As salaries rise for non-virtual leading actors, the price of virtual established stars may become very reasonable. Wonder who would own the copyright? The studios that supplied the images or the estates of the actors?
With full Internet and Web connections, people could pick their virtual realities. Vendors won’t mind as long as they can make a sale. In late 1999, The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com) ran an article on Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopaedia which revealed that Microsoft offered different facts for different cultures. For example, an underappreciated Italian-American invented the telephone in the Italian language edition, while Alexander Graham Bell continued to prevail in English-language and German editions. Will non-virtual societies begin to disintegrate as individuals select their realities, define their peers, and commit to new loyalties? To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve (or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, if you believe the Screen Writers Guild version), “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
In all this confusion, in all this unrest, in all this chaos coming upon us, who will help people everywhere protect themselves from the dangers of inaccurate, overpriced, dangerous data, from the perils of relying on the unreliable and sinking into virtually baseless virtual realities? Librarians, that’s who! Or information professionals, as we may call ourselves. As the old, but still painful, joke goes, “That’s why they pay us the big bucks.” But really, who else? Of all the information professions, librarians are the only ones that define and measure performance solely in terms of clients’ needs and interests. All the other professions define their members in terms of technical platforms or vendor interests first and clients second, if that. Programmers only deal with problems that programs can solve. Information industry professionals only develop products that can produce a profit. Only librarians use any medium that works to gather any data that is true to serve the client. For librarians, it ain’t over till the client is happy. We work for smiles.
By the way, as many Net newbie firms have discovered, such client-focused professionals make marvellous managers and employees for firms truly committed to the interests of users. However, librarians will not be in a position to do for their global clientele what their global clientele needs done until they themselves design the products and services, until they become the Net newbies supplying virtuous, virtual library service. Librarians have to build services that serve and create global constituencies. They cannot confine themselves or cling to the geographical limits of politically or financially defined constituencies, such as those of a government or corporation. Information technology has made and will make such limits seem antediluvian in the Third Millennium. In any case, the clients that need us most are, more and more, out there on the Web. We need to take the service to where the clients are.
So in a year or two, the Web and its denizens will quiver as word of keyboard sweeps across the earth bearing the glad tidings, “Help has come at last! The cavalry has arrived! Robin Hood and his Merry Persons have saved the land! Quick!! Change your start-up pages to http://www.thetruth.com (or www.thetruth.org for you purists).” As the decades pass, this mighty Web site will stand like a beacon, guiding weary and frightened travellers to safe harbour. It will carry only audited, evaluated, confirmed sightings of accurate, unbiased (or bias-identified and cross-checked) data on approved sites. Its lucid interfaces will tie that data to real-world questions in customer terms. Its steadfast links will provide full documentation for the sites and register any tips or techniques needed to extract sound information, as well as any reservations or limitations of that data. It will incorporate the educational elements needed to enable a customer to understand and effectively use the data they extract. Most important, it will confirm when a source for data of the quality required does not exist on the Web, but in another medium. It will then identify that source and that other medium and provide access routes.
In time, Webmasters across the length and breadth of the Web will beg for TheTruth.com’s stamp of approval. Tamely, they will submit sites for TheTruth.com’s eagle-eyed and noble-browed consideration, trembling in panic lest TheTruth.com condemn their offerings with its “LiarLiar” anathema. With its massive user base, TheTruth.com will inventory all the data for which customers have expressed a serious interest, but for which the Web lacked adequate sources. This inventory will serve two purposes. It will challenge other Web citizens to prove TheTruth.com wrong and find a qualified source to their everlasting glory. Through the awards given to customers who have proved it wrong, TheTruth.com will confirm the purity of its commitment to service, that it never lets ego interfere with its professional service ethic. The inventory will also comprise an invaluable source of revenue which TheTruth.com can sell to the information industry to inspire them to fill the gaps in the Web’s information base. “Do good and do well” is the motto of TheTruth.com.
Who will create TheTruth.com? Who will craft this mighty force for good? Librarians of the World united to serve. They will join together in their professional organisations and hammer out rigorous standards. They will establish virtual consortia that link committed Web librarians together in a global network of quality-minded seekers for TheTruth.com. They will bring the profession undying honour and protect a world of clients from a world of harm. And in case you worry that TheTruth.com has grown too rigid and establishment-oriented in its definition of truth, the New Age, X-Files generation among you can work on their alternative service YourTruth.org (or YourTruth.com, for you realists).
Am I dreaming? Yes, but it’s the right kind of dream. Above all, information service in the new millennium will involve radical changes and radical new organisations to create and deal with the shifts. No more incremental advances, only leaps of faith.
Let me offer one word of advice and one word of comfort for the scary times that have come upon us. My advice? As you face the challenge of this new time and scan the horizon for signs as to the new directions it will take, focus your attention on underlying structural requirements. Listen for those clicks as key elements lock into place. For example, take distance learning. In the spring of 1999, one university, the International Jones University, achieved full accreditation from one of the regional agencies that accredits all the colleges and universities in the United States. Click. Within weeks, the Open University in the U.K. began global operations. Click. Columbia University announced that they would open up an office to partner with vendors seeking to establish distance-learning operations. Click. A leading academic publisher announced that it would contract with professors to establish courses and curricula built around their textbooks. Click. The U.S. Department of Education announced that it had begun establishing student loan criteria for students taking classes from 117 distance-learning educational establishments. Click. Click. Click.
Apply the same research technique to other areas moving forward rapidly: e-commerce, health information, etc. Analyze the underlying structural elements that make an existing operation work. Estimate what advantages digitalisation of the process could offer, what hurdles such digitalisation would have to leap. Figure what elements and components would have to be in place for the switch to occur. Sometimes the sound of the clicks can be very quiet. Sometimes they can be muffled, but they’re there. And who better to ferret them out than information professionals?
And as for that word of comfort, remember that the world we have spent our blood, sweat, toil, and tears upon has finally arrived. We were online before online was online. We cared and nurtured information services before they turned a profit. As more and more everyday people become information handlers using the technologies we supported in their infancies, they will need professional guidance and support. They will need protection from people who only view information as a way to make a profit or as a tool to control the suckers. We librarians, we information professionals belong in the Third Millennium because the people of this new time need us now more than ever.
The Third Millennium
has arrived. We’re home at last.