Ten, 20, 30
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
The other day, an esteemed colleague and career-long friend called to ask me why I had not yet responded to her last email. I made up some pathetic excuse — food poisoning (probably salmonella) or some such — to excuse my failure, but actually the request had “gob-smacked” me, as the Brits would say. She wanted me to give her a few pithy, spot-on accurate predictions as to where we would be in 10, then 20, then 30 years’ time.
Thirty years? We?? Well, at that point, I envision myself asking the Angel Gabriel to pick me up a piña colada on his way back from the Heavenly Hand-Out Bar. Great joint, by the way. The drinks are always triples. Taste divine. Not a headache in a carload. And not only won’t they let you pay for them, but the waiter insists on tipping you! Not that the money means much since everything else up there is free too, but it’s a nice gesture.
But let’s get down to business here. What process does one use to make insightful, if not inevitably accurate, predictions? Well, of course, the first and most critical step is getting the timeline right. Six months? Puh-leez! One year? I don’t think so. Two years? Well, maybe, but only for predictions where you can verify that yours agree with every other seer in the field. Even 5 years could come back to bite you — and I think you know where the bite would come. Clearly CYA is the applicable phrase here. (For definition, see http://www.acronymfinder.com/Cover-Your-Ass-(CYA).html.)
Once you’ve secured a future timeline long enough to protect your future professional standing, you look at three key components: disruptive technologies, real needs, and delusion. That last one’s the wildcard. It mainly affects the timing of change and sometimes player selection.
Disruptive technologies are often put into play by lovers of the technology, visionaries in the grip of passion, either from excitement over the design of the tool or by images of the glorious new world the technology could bring about. Lovers — aka developers, early adopters, venture capitalists, etc. — may sometimes look delusional, but history has shown that they often were right on everything but the timing. I can remember how many sneered at the idea of a paperless office, but I’ve been without a working printer for years and years now. (Actually, there’s nothing wrong with my printer, I’m just too lazy — and uninterested — to hook it up.) And who was right? Bill Gates when he made internet work a negligible priority for Microsoft all those years ago? Or the lovers with their no dowry policy (i.e., no payment before service) at Google?
Then there are real needs. These remain relatively unchanging, but the contexts and formats keep shifting. No one “needs” a journal article or a book. They “need” the information within the document, but if the information comes from an open access essay or a wiki posting by an expert or a Facebook interaction with a group of experts or a streaming video of a conference session on YouTube or a … Well, you get the point. Vendors of services may tear their hair out trying to figure out which technology to rely upon in which situation for which market. Librarians may stand there looking around at the rows of shelves and the safes filled with licensing agreements and wonder why users don’t seem to be pounding their real or virtual doors down.
Bottom line: Though the need for substance may never go away, the substantial need changes may be relatively limited. The real change in the last 30 years has been the universality of online searching. Everyone is a searcher. That process has not stopped. Mobile computing represents another form of expanding universality. The other key factor is the cumulative effect of the push toward free. Basically, denial of service no longer represents a reasonable strategy. (Ask Bill Gates as he competes with the cloud.) Give me your money or you can’t have it. Uh-huh. Come down to the library (or call us) during our working hours. Sorry. Not gonna fly.
And here comes that wildcard — delusion. You see it everywhere. I think the first time I recognized it professionally was in the early dawn of online searching back in the early ’70s. For years, literally, years, you used to see these articles comparing print searching with online searching and claiming that carefully conducted tests proved online was no faster, maybe even slower. Talk about utterly illogical! Look closer and, of course, they had cooked the test from the start to online’s disadvantage. For example, the test would consist of a single known-item search. The print test would have someone going after a single bibliographic citation for which they had the right date and the right author and the right journal title. Don your gym shoes, clutch the paper with the citation in one hand and a pencil in the other, and BANG! — the starter’s gun sounded. While the online searcher was still looking for a telephone outlet, the other side would be dragging an index volume off the shelf. The silliest aspect of these tests was that they would penalize the online searcher for finding more than one known citation. Instead of laboring to do the ornate field searching to find just one item, any professional online searcher with the brains of a peanut would just go for the author and dump out a bibliography. Took less time and effort and guaranteed that if the client got the original citation wrong, you’d still find something pertinent.
The greatest, most dangerous, and most prevalent delusion is, “I’m alright, Jack.” That’s not a train! It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Everyone does it this way, always have, always will. No one does it that way any more. You’ve got to be modern. You only need a Google search, a Wikipedia piece. That’ll have everything. You shouldn’t do a Google search or ever rely on Wikipedia. They’re never reliable.
Vendors may play into the delusions of their market, even when their professional knowledge of new (or even full-grown) technologies tells them that the times they are a-changing. They may tell librarians how dedicated they are to designing products in familiar and library-friendly ways, even though everyone — including the librarians — uses end-user-friendly tools day and night. It’s a trap to hold onto an existing market, but it’s a trap that often catches the vendor too. Clinging to old-style approaches to protect revenue flow from traditional markets is a delusion that has plagued the information industry for decades. It’s left all of us playing catch-up. But tomorrow is another day and sometimes catch-up can offer interesting options for leap-frogging into the future.
Enough for now. Hey, Gabe! How about a mai-tai next time? Double down on the rum. Thanks, buddy!