the machine s/tops us

E.M. Forster’s 1909 short work The Machine Stops is early for technology doom but it wasn’t the first nor last look at our dependence on the mechanical. Reading it reminds me of so many other stories, songs, movies, and other storytelling devices that I believe The Machine Stops must be one of the most influential novellas of the twentieth century.

The Machine guides all life, or what’s left of it anyway. All decisions and movements are controlled by it. What strikes me most deeply is the Machine’s heart, its instructions, being accessible only by book. Or, the Book, a clear reference to the Bible and the religious fever that sweeps the underground world of honeycomb cells (prisons). The character Vashti finds solace in the pages that provide directions “against every possible contingency.” Beautifully bound and printed in “subsequent editions,” it becomes the object that unifies believers who “spend their strength praying to their Books.” As the Machine begins to erode, “it became difficult to read.” Yet, “there was still the Book, and while there was the Book there was security.”

I do not know whether it was inside my head, or inside the wall…

It does not, however, hold the answer to escaping the tormenting grip of the Machine, which Kuno, Vashti’s son, discovers through a most physical and emotional transformation. Forster leaves us with hope. Kuno’s dying words let us know that people who have left the hive are living above and breathing real air. They will continue the species without the Machine. This regeneration is very typical of such stories. And yet, it wasn’t present in The Machine is Us/ing Us.

Professor Wesch put together a clever video illustrating the shift from printed text to hypertext to Web 2.0. However, his focus is on data. He does not spend time reflecting on how this new method of sharing data will affect people – communicatively, culturally, socially, emotionally. His end note on how we will have to rethink everything, like love, just touches on this. He seems optimistic that the removal of form from content will free information. I question this optimism.

Content looses meaning when it looses form. Ask an artist or librarian. In person, please.


bubble for one

Checking in new books at the library, I set one aside called The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. The subtitle is what caught my attention: What the Internet is Hiding from You. Now, I know the Internet is data mining my every move and personalizing my searches, but I don’t really understand how or exactly why. So, I checked it out to myself before it even hit the new book shelf (the ultimate joy of being a librarian in circulation services – getting new books first!).

Pariser is making it all clear. I’m only up to chapter 2 (The User is the Content) but I’m already feeling anxiety. I love Google but it’s a one-way relationship. I give and Google takes. And redistributes for petty cash. So does Facebook and pretty much every other site I visit. After browsing for shoes on Zappos, and leaving the site without a purchase, I found myself on my Diigo page with an ad for those shoes I considered on Zappos.

It’s hard to be informed in the filter bubble. Going online to news sites isn’t enough. Reading Pariser’s book is a start. His TED talk follows the book’s introduction and the New York Times review is a helpful overview of the issue. All is not lost (though much of it is). Pariser’s gives us 10 Things You Can Do to ease the pain of being a product in a digital world.

One of the quotes Pariser uses to introduce the second chapter is by John Dewey. He used the term “bars” but I’ve easily replaced it with “filters” to show how clearly relevant his concern is to today’s society:

“Everything which FILTERS freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life.”

I wonder what libraries can do to burst this bubble, to encourage patrons to realize that personal preferences determined by others are not personal at all.

libraries and books

A recent Library Babel Fish blog post from Inside Higher Ed has me again thinking about The Future of the Academic Library: A Symposium: Bridging the Gap. Sponsored by Library Journal and EBSCO Host, the free conference was held at Temple University on Friday, November 11.

At Library Babel Fish, Barbara Fister writes about The Myth of the Bookless Library. It’s a bit of a misnomer, but perhaps also quite telling about how we view “book.” Fister means a library of books, but digital ones. There is a lot to consider – money, mostly, but also access. These are the reasons academic libraries consider e-books; subscribing is cheaper and means more options for researchers. We close the argument.

The Librarian by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1570

Fister doesn’t think we should finish arguing just yet. She mentions the 2001 book (printed, mind you) The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper. It’s a running joke, Fister notes, that we now have upkeep of “disorderly desktops both literally and digitally.” I’d also suggest reading John Seely Brown’s and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (2000) which directly reminds us that context is king.

At the symposium, we were given the opportunity to listen to 4 students speak frankly about their library use. As Temple students, they use Temple University’s Paley Library, but the message can be carried across disciplines and university sizes. The students all read on their iPhones, but not if they wanted to concentrate. Concentration takes paper. Some current research from the University of Stavanger affirms this.

The students did mention using an e-textbook because it was cheaper (and lighter) than a regular textbook, but enjoyment reading and scholarly research requires hands-on reading. Additionally, reading on a laptop or other mobile device means distractions – Facebook, namely, but also email and online shopping. As much as this digital generation is addicted, they have taken the first step and admitted it. Now those students are asking us for help – dead zones in the library and technology time-outs.

Perhaps we could help by giving them something to read on paper.

the future of academic libraries

On Friday (11.11.11) I attended The Future of the Academic Library: A Symposium: Bridging the Gap. Sponsored by Library Journal and EBSCO Host, the free conference was held at Temple University. The event press release suggested this would be a day “to overcome our misperceptions and stereotypes about our colleagues and our users.” This is a lofty goal, notably because it means first admitting to having misperceptions and stereotypes.

The keynote speaker was Kristin Antelman, Associate Director for the Digital Library at North Carolina State University. Well-spoken and fearless, Antelman confronted the unspoken gaps and even hinted at librarians’ own fault in the widening of these gaps. She took her view of organizational environment from Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web (seen below), adding in the elements of information and trust.

The Cultural Web

An important part of this is web is Symbols, similar to brand. The future of the academic library may mean a re-branding; this will be a tremendously difficult task, Antelman says, because the founding purpose and mission of libraries have become deeply embedded principles in our culture. During the segment of speakers that followed, Damon Jaggars (Associate University Librarian for Collections and Services at Columbia University) articulated this culturally rooted library branding by suggesting we (in the profession) are “organizationally stuck in nostalgia.” This immediately reminded me of Jaron Lanier’s comments during his keynote at ACRL 2011 – if we cannot compete with the Internet and maintain innovation at lightening speed, perhaps we should return to this romanticism and pull on the heartstrings of our culture to lure them back.

competing values framework
competing values framework

Antelman concluded by addressing organizational culture from the competing values framework of Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron (see above). An informal survey of “future leaders” in the profession demonstrated what I’m sure most of us view as our libraries’ culture: they see their organization as a hierarchy but want it to be more of an adhocracy. Then again, how do we know the administration does not also want this too? This goes beyond librarianship; we all want an environment where we can be creative and work within our strengths.

A key word Antelman used was “timid.” We are timid and, looking around the room of the symposium, I had to agree. At least, we looked timid. We looked tired (well, it was Friday) and unsure, hesitant to walk with our heads held high because we might trip over something. I see timidity in myself since I joined the profession. Not necessarily afraid of failure or taking initiative, but desperately wanting to blend in. I wrote the word large and bold on my day’s notes – and now I resolve to walk away from it without turning back.