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Magazines > Searcher > November 2012
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Vol. 20 No. 9 — November 2012
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Uh-Oh
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

There’s a phrase for it. They call it “disruptive technology.” All of us have come to enjoy the benefits of the disruptions:

  • Phoning while walking (not while driving any more —there’s a law in most states against this dismembering form of disruption)
  • Answers leaping off screens to questions you barely remember asking
  • The demise of anonymity (One could never film a contemporary version of Random Harvest — noncinephiles, see Plot section at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_Harvest_(film) — even if Ronald Colman and Greer Garson came back from the dead.)
  • The intrusion of the past into the present, as no digital reality ever really goes away (whole eras of music stay alive in CDs on Amazon while Google Books rides to the rescue of humanity’s past scholarship)

And there they are again. Speaking of disruptions always seems to bring up those two big players — the Great Gods Google and Amazon. With the launch of its latest version of Kindle, Amazon has finally turned to television advertising. The advertisements seem to promote Amazon’s commitment to disruption more than the hardware it hopes to sell. The slogans portray “normal” as the company’s born enemy. As Amazon says, it’s redefined “normal” before and fully intends to keep on doing so again and again. (“Normal just begs to be messed with.”)

But in actuality, Amazon’s corporate culture seems to work more to change the way “normal” works rather than what constitutes “normal’s” outcome. An invisible bookstore still sells books, even invisible books that only appear when a screen brightens. An invisible music store still distributes round objects with sound on them even if it has added digitized music that exists mainly when headsets merge with heads. And for all the rest of everything you can think of that people get through Amazon, just think of Sears catalogs or supermarkets or discount warehouses. The activity stays the same — buying and selling stuff, visible or invisible.

Meanwhile, Google not only offers information, it also offers tools to find and manipulate that information, both online within its own system and offline inside user systems. It offers special silos of information for people with specific needs and interests. Or does it? And, even if it does, will it continue to do so? Could the disruption of all that has gone before be followed by a disruption of what came after? It has been said that water is the universal solvent. The floodwaters of Google have engulfed the information infrastructure built up through millennia based on print technology and supply-and-demand economics.

But Google has taken money out of the picture for most of its services — at least the denial-of-service-money model by which users know that failure to pay means they won’t get what they want. And don’t we all just love sitting in the lap of info-luxury knowing no one will dun us for payment? While we all naturally grouse at any attempt to reach into our wallets, paying for service does give one some kind of control or at least leverage over a vendor’s actions. If we pay, the vendor has to deliver; if the vendor wants us to keep on paying, it better damn well keep what it give us working.

But what happens when the service most used by information professionals and their clients as well charges nothing? Outside of signing petitions or whining on blogs and social nets, what can you do? And how effective can anything that you do be?

This month’s issue carries an article and a column that illustrate the problems that can arise when Google gets bored with something it’s done and moves on to another area. Erik Arnold’s Tools of the Trade column, entitled “Searching on Google Is Easy, Customizing — Not So Much,” focuses on the problems information professionals may have to deal with when Google changes direction. The problems he discusses are difficult, but personally I found his casual mention that some of the Google content silos are starting to drift almost frightening. OK, I think any patent searcher could do without Google Patents, but to hear that the digitization in Google Books has dwindled to a trickle and — shudder !! — that Google Scholar has started to slide lower and lower on Google’s “More” menus? That ain’t funny!!

But you really have to come to grips with the perils of disruption when you read Terry Ballard’s “When Google Taketh Away” article. He inventories case after case of Google totally dropping tools it had developed or perhaps only ceasing to name (the latter he refers to as “the undead”). Ballard himself has developed hundreds of information tools in his career, often using Google Custom Search Engine.

Now I don’t object when Google expands its reach, even if it can be somewhat confusing at times. Arnold points out that most of the recent changes in Google’s developments reorient the system to cover content in the social nets. This may not necessarily constitute a trendy following of a fad. For several years now, I have been teasing my grocer about his failure to develop a website or even a blog on which he could announce new offerings. The other day he told me that he has a “website,” but on Facebook (where it’s free, of course). As people start using the social nets as substitutes for websites through Network Solutions or other URL providers, Google may have to track the social nets just to keep its promise to the users of the world of comprehensive web coverage. So that’s fine, but what about canceling all these other services?

Back when the Great Disruption of online and then the internet and then its web began, people would say, “Well, if you can’t find it there, try the library.” Hah!! Now they try the library when they don’t have a machine to go online. The librarians use the same tools accessible to all, though probably with more skill. Hardly any of the licensed databases in libraries (that will take our money) cover web sources at all. “Why bother?” the database provides probably think. “Everyone goes to Google any way.” Nonetheless as iconic sources announce their pending moves to all-digital, if not tomorrow, the day after tomorrow — sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary, The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, etc., etc. — the archive aggregations become less and less complete.

But even more disruptive, the underlying publications weaken and fade away. Some major cities no longer have a daily newspaper, in print or any other way. All digital sources with little or no provisions for archiving become “go-to” sites for readers who previously relied on sources that filled the shelves of libraries. And libraries themselves have begun to close.

There’s no going back. There’s no parallel universe where an alternative information infrastructure guarantees the maintenance of sound, accessible archives. We’re in a Google world, and it turns out the Great God Google has mood swings.

Sheesh!! What to do? What to do? I wonder if we could somehow persuade them to take our money. Puh-leez!!
— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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