Vol.8, No. 9 • Oct. 2000
The Broadband Challenge
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

The leaves turn color, the harvest begins, and the “all-technology” issue of Searcher arrives. It must be October!

Once again, the goal of this issue, beyond Searcher's eternal aim of supplying a mixture of the practical and the visionary, is to set a course for our readers technologically. The general standard for the technology under discussion remains, as it has in past October issues, no more than 2 years out. Within 2 years or less, readers should expect to see the technology covered in this issue appear somewhere in their environment, if it hasn’t already arrived.

One underlying technology did not get covered in this issue, though we have covered it somewhat in earlier issues and will continue to do so in future ones. That technology is broadband. Whatever the delivery technology chosen — DSL, cable modem, satellite, or just your first T-1 line — the effect of broadband information delivery will be truly revolutionary. And, as always with intimate technologies like online, the real revolution will occur in human behavior.

Broadband represents more than simply speeding up whatever you already do online, though that in itself will probably provide the “first, fine, careless rapture.” It will change the way you use the computer, how often, and how easily. In fact, the line between the outer world of the Web and the inner world of one’s own computer will begin to blur.

The genies who control the computer world in which we live expect this shift to happen and have begun positioning their products to accommodate and profit from it. For example, the current versions of Microsoft Windows let users choose if they want their entire desktop to operate just like a Web page.

And look at the latest hot trend in software delivery — Application Service Providers (ASPs). This development assumes that masses of users will accept something that one would not have thought anyone would even consider just a few years ago — namely, that one should let outsiders know every time you use their software, even let outsiders handle all the data you produce. This trend certainly appears to run counter to the increasing public concern with Internet privacy, but all the gurus claim it’s the coming thing.

Personally, I draw the line in the sand. I’m no privacy nut, but if Bill Gates thinks he’s going to know every time one of my fingers hits the keyboard, much less which key it hits, he’s got another think coming. Didn’t many of us flee to the personal computer in the first place in an attempt to escape the tyranny of centralized computing services in our institutions? So now, everyone wants to convert their desktop computer environment into a nouveau MIS-controlled installation? I don’t think so.

But what makes this development possible and even likely is the fact that broadband will so integrate the Web with our desktop operations that it will become seamless. The delay involved in “going online” will vanish. Firing up the computer will immediately put you online. The only way to go offline completely will be to remove the computer.

And then there’s the different kind of content that speed can bring. With megabytes (Mbs) soaring past quicker than kilobytes (Kbs), options open for delivery of multimedia, Internet telephony, streaming video, videoconferencing, movies-on-demand, e-books,…you name it. So the forces of convergence dissolve the lines between television and telephone and computers. Soon the more flexible Web delivery medium may threaten television channeling. When the television becomes a digital outlet, how long before people become their own primetime network and cable television executives? People could create their own channels of selections or borrow any channeling they prefer from a multitude of sources.

It’s a brave new world out there, filled with wondrous uniformed creatures clutching clipboards, flipping pages, looking for your address, grabbing up their kits, and opening the doors on the vans marked “Broadband Is Us.”

Computer = Content
All this means that the Internet and its Web, which has already converted all our knowledge worker clients into online searchers, are about to complete their mission and convert the world. It means that the Web will expand not only its scope of coverage in population terms, but its depth of coverage in terms of the roles it plays and the frequencies it plays them. The Web will take up more and more of users’ time and attention. This will mean it will own more and more consumer eyeballs and that means more and more money from advertisers and sponsors will pour into Web-based coffers, as sellers scurry to recover those moving eyeballs. It means that the people who used to own the eyeballs — television networks, movie studios, video producers, print publishers — will also pour money into the Web, as they seek to retain their eyeball control in the new medium.

But what does all this mean to information professionals? A lot. A long time ago, Quint’s Law of Computer Development was enacted, proclaiming that “Dumb users make smart computers.” The problem now is that another one of the dissolving lines is the one between computers and content, between the technology delivering the message and the quality of the message delivered. People who would never consider themselves expert in specific fields — medicine, law, the arts, etc. — often consider themselves up to speed in expertise if they find what they need online.

The old adage “You get what you pay for” does not hold in the Web world and probably never will. Too much fine information flows for free, paid for by advertisers and sponsors, that is identical to what commercial vendors sell in other venues. Even without the freebie factor, the Web still boasts the contributions of authoritative sources such as government agencies, academic institutions, professional groups, etc. And again, the future should only bring us more of good research from such sources.

In the past, information professionals have protected the minds of the patrons in their charge by building collections of quality material, by distinguishing the good from the bad, the reliable from the unreliable, in their acquisition decisions. We supplied what patrons could get in a world of information scarcity and we tried, to the best of our ability, to make sure what we got for them was worth the getting.

Now, we must deal with protecting patrons’ minds in a world of information affluence. We must find ways to identify and mark good content. To do that, we must declare the Web our turf. We must make the ability to define and locate high-quality content on the Web our most important professional skill. We must create an image of our profession that makes every end user turn to us like sunflowers to the sun. And we must back that image with performance, building on our collegial ties to supply any deficiencies. If one of us doesn’t know, another one will. But regardless of whom among us had the answer to start, the patron must get the answer in the end.

If you think dealing with the Web up to now has seemed like trying to swim upriver, get out your beachwear. Broadband means we’re about to go ocean swimming in a hurricane. And there’s no way to avoid the swim. Because we’re all lifeguards and we’ve all got clients going down for the third time. Rescue is our job. Let’s get wet.

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