by Barbara Quint
Wouldn’t it be cool if every electronic appliance had a computer attached? If TVs were computers and computers, TVs? If cell phones were laptops and laptops were cell phones? If all the world were one vast ... Web?
About 5 years ago all the magi of the business and technology trade press were predicting that happy state was trembling on the brink. They even had a name for it: convergence. Well, that was 5 years ago and it hasn’t happened ... yet. However, the murmurs have begun again that — this time — it really is happening.
The biggest factor in the development of yet another New World Order appears to be two technological developments and one underlying social phenomenon. First, broadband access has exploded, both in terms of the number of people who now have it at every juncture in their daily lives, and in the number and type of access points. The latest announcement indicates that electric power companies may be heading into the arena to join telephone companies, Internet service providers, and cable television services in offering broadband service. Now wouldn’t that be the ultimate evidence that all things electric are becoming all things digital?
The second technological development is what I like to call the "Jack Bauer/Veronica Mars" phenomenon: the universal portability of all kinds of communication connections — Wi-Fi, cell phones, PDAs, BlackBerry devices, etc. How could Jack Bauer (aka Kiefer Sutherland) save the nation and the world year after year in only "24" hours, if he did not have instantaneous connections with "CTU" to give him charts, maps, building specifications, satellite photographs, and all the other information he needs before he uses the same cell phone to issue tactical instructions to delta force teams and calls in air strikes? How could a simple Valley Girl like Veronica Mars (aka Kristen Bell), not yet graduated from high school, conduct complex undercover detection and surveillance operations without a hand-held device and laptop computer — available at any Best Buy or Circuit City — to snap and transmit key photographs, tap into proprietary Web sites, and even bug phones? It’s a new world all right.
And when people see the possibilities each night on TV shows and watch people around them using more and more powerful, though often smaller and smaller, devices as commonplace, well that triggers a "me, too" phenomenon that sells and sells and sells.
But what happens when all these folks get all these devices? Will the old Pareto Principle still hold true? As Joseph Juran phrased it, will the "vital few and trivial many" pattern continue? Will 80 percent of the fancy features go unused and just 20 percent end up serving their masters? Will digital integration sit unused on device after device? Will a people who could not program their VCRs suddenly leap into a digital revolution?
No doubt it will take some time and not everyone will advance at the same pace, which brings up a real opportunity for information professionals. This new convergence phenomenon promises to reach all the people we already count as clients and probably all the people we ever dreamed of reaching. Once computer and networking technologies capture such mass media devices as television sets, that — as they say — is "all she wrote."
And for once in this Third Millennium we can see a phenomenon that could take years to play out. Things will happen at a brisk pace, but it won’t be the breakneck pace of one day a Stanford diploma and just count the years on one hand before attainment of world domination, as with Google. Even after the equipment is in place, after the devices have become commonplace, the use of the equipment will need to be taught and to all types of users in all types of situations. People learn a lot slower than technology can advance. The ancillary services, in particular, the content flow that can empower the devices to do good, will need critical evaluation and smart shopping. We already see communities building their own Wi-Fi networks as a service to constituents and, in one case, getting a very nice price. (You did hear that Google was offering to network San Francisco for free?)
Sooner or later all the devices with all their different features and all the services with all the different content and interfaces will leave many users calling for help. Where will it come from? Who will give it? Vendors? Yes, to some extent, but consumers have long since learned caution in relying on vendor advice completely. Even the most altruistic of vendors — if they exist — can only tell you about the products they sell. In a convergence world, all the products are interacting all the time. How many of us have had cable television repairpersons blame the set and TV repair people blame the cable? What happens when vendors can slide off the hook by blaming the Web? And what happens when consumers fear that all the really friendly, super-helpful vendor advice will only lead to new purchase promotions? And how about the content services? Who do you want to supply you with your music, your videocasts, your
e-books? Who will offer the best quality at the best price?
These are the information needs that convergence will create. What people will need — at home, in the workplace, on the road — are solid, informative, independent sources of information and flexible, skilled instruction on whatever devices and content flows they have chosen. We information professionals — in libraries or in less traditional settings — must be the ones to provide that information. We have served our communities in the past to find and deliver what people need in print. Now we must perform the same service in a digital universe.
How can we do it? That’s a lot of information to handle, a lot of hours to commit, a lot of pressure on our schedules and budgets. Can we manage it? Not alone, but then we don’t need to do it alone. We can coordinate the information assignments. Keep in touch with other info pro’s engaged in good work. Share source information and teaching methods. Build common working tools. Influence vendors to provide standard support. Rate and grade sources. Brand them with our own logo, identifying quality sources and, at the same time, the quality of our professional judgment.
Working in isolation, we would fail. Working together, we can build a new role for our profession and a new service to our clients. We can do good and do well.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is email@example.com.