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Magazines > Searcher > July/August 2011
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Vol. 19 No. 6 — Jul/Aug 2011
Beam Me Up, Scotty
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Through the centuries, some philosophers and poets have espoused the notion that all of life is a dream, that there is no reality, just a communal fantasy. One classic anecdote tells the tale of a rejection of such a notion. In this anecdote, a dream advocate is trying to sell the theory to a colleague. After listening, apparently deeply absorbed in studying the notion, the colleague looks up, fixes the dreammaster with a piercing glance, then slowly stands and walks away. It took the dreammaster a while to catch on, but what could he do? Complain of rudeness? Try to re-open the discussion? What discussion? What rudeness? In fact, what walking away? If everything is a dream, maybe no one walked away. Maybe no one was having a discussion. Maybe neither of the two colleagues even existed. Maybe …

To paraphrase Voltaire on the existence of God, if reality didn’t exist, we would still have to pretend it did. Nevertheless, there is a certain value to the premise. It reminds us never to be too sure we know what is real and what isn’t, to always remember that dreams have a role to play, even in a real world.

In this regard, let’s take a look at science fiction. How often has the fiction led to a new reality? In the case of the French sci-fi genius, Jules Verne, when the reality caught up with the fiction, it sometimes even bore the same names — like Nautilus — as Verne’s version, when scientists and technologists paid homage to his visions.

In our age, the Star Trek series of TV shows and movies have lighted the way. As with all good sci-fi, it has given observers a chance to accustom themselves to what it would be like to live daily with realities that currently have no existence. In a commercial world, it can create a market for technologies that might otherwise be deemed too exotic for an easy sell.

Clearly that has occurred with computing, particularly mobile computing. The handheld communicators in the hands of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and succeeding generations of crews aboard the Starships Enterprise have seemed so alluring, so infinitely helpful that their universal presence seems inevitable. You need information on anything under the sun — and that’s any sun in the galaxy — you just inquire, “Computer?” You need to communicate with anyone, no matter how distant, you just flip that communicator open and start the conversation.

When you think about all that goes into creating the universal accessibility of teleconnections and computerized information provision, the complexities involved are staggering. But much of what has created the commitment underlying the miracle is the public expectation that such a miracle is not miraculous, that it is normal and natural for humans raised on Star Trek images. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Thus nature doth imitate art.”

But what does universal mobile computing mean for us information professionals? Universality seems the main challenge for us to face. Any information service that is not available to the broadest range of people and available 24/7 seems perilously antiquated to today’s world of users. The very idea of going out of your way to get to information, to turn it into a project requiring one to move to another location and then only within certain time limits — well, it’s almost ludicrous. How retro can you get?!!

What we can do and must do to retain our relevance in this universally connected world is to guarantee the quality, the accuracy, the truth of our information services. That’s no easy task as the publishing world upon which most of us have depended struggles to stay alive in the perfect storm the new technologies have created. Rather than lashing ourselves to traditional sources that may no longer have the reliability, much less the exclusivity, they once had, we should look at every information source with cruelly fresh eyes and call them as we see them. If necessary, we should step up and take on the functions formerly handled by traditional publishing.

For just one example, look at ebooks and open access. As mobile computing puts an ebook reader in every hand and ebooks become the norm as print sinks into quaintness, self-publishing should grow exponentially. And this will not be just vanity publishing. It will include top-quality scholarship, the kind supported by university research presses. But how top quality will it actually be if authors control the output completely instead of publishers?

I know this may sound self-serving, but authors need editors, not to mention layout experts, fact-checkers, grammarians, etc. And readers need such enhanced authorship. Who will guarantee that polishing will be in place? How about the librarians who have always labored to assemble the good stuff in their collections? How about creating a digital reality where readers/users can find the good stuff in a universal library?

We’re almost there with Google Books, but Google’s commitment to open access, not to mention its emerging role as a giant ebook publisher, prevents it from providing that critical role of separating the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps services run by academic librarians, such as the HathiTrust Digital Library, which relies on the input from Google Books’ library partners for its core collection, can expand into a service that supplies that critical evaluative role. And the more people come to realize that getting their ebooks from a librarian-approved service seems to pay off in truth-in-hand, the more likely academic librarians may receive inquiries from faculty authors as to where to get the polishing needed to get their works ready for primetime. Some academic libraries, e.g., Stanford University and University of Michigan, have already merged publishing with broadly available digital content services. It’s a path to follow to a better future for us, our clients, and the world.

But to get back to Star Trek, I’ve been thinking about that “beam me up” business. The transporter would have to have a way to map the placement of all the molecules before the beaming could occur. Then it would transmit the map to the target location for the reassembling of the molecules. Hmm. This may be a little trickier than that flip-top communicator, but then it could have some payoffs not mentioned in the Star Trek series — namely, immortality and universal youthfulness. Think about it. If you could map the placement of all your molecules when you were at your peak and store the map, anytime you got sick or even just out of condition, you could step into the transporter and pull up the optimal map and tweak yourself back to you at your best. Something to dream about and — who knows? — something to think about.
— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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