I meant to post this week about the forthcoming reading, though after today’s seminar, I’m thinking more about As We May Think, and there’s enough rattling around in my head to warrant a post-seminar entry on that topic. We’ll see how the week goes regarding a post on this week’s very interesting reading.
Predicting the Future
I was struck as we discussed Vannevar Bush’s work that the group had a radically different reaction to the piece than the first group I read it with. My first encounter with As We May Think was in library school, where the general reaction was more astonishment at the spot-on-ness of Bush’s technology predictions (surprise despite the evidence that his predictions influenced the creation of said technologies) than questioning. Then again, one entire section of his article is devoted to libraries (section 6), and another is devoted to what we’ve come to know as hyperlinking and is deeply related to classification (section 7). For a library crowd, who is primed to be thinking about the nature of information and information retrieval, it was an amazing read.
Giving it a second read, about a decade later, I found it even more remarkable. Initially I saw the connection between what Bush was describing and the personal computer as pretty clear, as well a clear reframing of how one might access text (No remote building of books! All available at your desk! Keyword searching rather than card catalogs!), and the primacy of links between information (rather than linear organization we have hyperlinks, metadata, and social information to help navigate the landscape!). I also saw clear connections from what he was saying to digital photography and speech-to-text technologies that were beginning to be more common at the time.
Now, more than anything, I was stunned at his prediction for Google Glass as he described a scientist who could instantly snap photographs during experiments, create speech records as tasks were performed, and generally keep an ongoing log of the processes, all from a headset with a small camera by the wearer’s eye. It gives me pause and causes me to consider his predictions in the last section regarding what can only be interpreted as a brain implant to facilitate storing information and retrieving from thought rather than manually inputting it with our hands or hearing it via the bones in our ears.
I adore that he brings up that there is so much to read that one couldn’t possibly read it all when producing information. True today as it was in the 40s.
What of Libraries?
I gave a related talk for faculty at my previous institution. The basic outline of the talk was why the library is changing and the role of the librarian. It’s here:
Where the Dream Was Not Realized
I can see where people might be critical of Bush’s ideas, and I have some critiques of my own.
Access and Copyright: Though my critiques are less with Bush as a thinker and more with what we did with his ideas. Primarily my issue is that of ownership of information. Bush imagined a future in which every person would have their own library, where the cost of acquiring information (in financial terms–he didn’t address the cognitive work of building a collection) was minimized. That has not been the case. The closest I can see to this is in the ebook market. If you have an extensive collection of ebooks (as I do), you likely don’t own them. If your ebook reader is associated with any of the mainstream providers, you essentially have a leasing agreement for your ebooks. There are terms of service agreements that you might be violating if you share them, and you can’t move ebooks between competing devices. Further, that’s only true for the books you buy. To have an entire collection of works as Bush imagines, you probably have to be affiliated with an academic library, and then there are limits to what you might have access to depending on organizational size and budget, vendor arrangements, or the fact that not everything is digitized. Even when you have full access to an academic library, some materials have restrictions on how many people may view them at the same time, and notes you make on ebooks, for example, are only persistent if you create an account. All of that to say we’ve come so far, but not yet gotten to Bush’s idealized state. (As an aside, in seminar, I brought up Cory Doctorow and his approach to open information and DRM free works, if you’re interested.)
Meaningful Links: We’ve all seen the power of linking on the web, of the vast, interesting information you can find due to friends on social networks sharing links. What I find saddest in the realization of Bush’s vision is that though we created the basic link making system, it lacks some of the depth of what he described. If I share a link on pinboard, for example, I have to be intentional enough to include text and tags to explain why. And in those shared links I hardly ever think to reference another site I’ve seen that’s relevant. I would love to annotate files on my hard drive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, to explain why I’m keeping a given file, what stage it’s in, or what it’s connected to, but the best hack I’ve found to achieve this is to put the file in an Evernote note with a description, which is hardly a good file saving system. I’m always posting professional links to my PLN on Twitter or Facebook, but they’re barely contextualized in 140 characters, and certainly not tying into something greater. And as much as I learn from my colleagues who likewise share links, I often long for something to tie together the big themes. So, I think, I really am just pining for the “new profession of trail blazers, those who… [establish] useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” in a deeper way than we’ve yet seen.
All of that to say, though I might have a few criticisms, I find Vannevar Bush to be amazing in his foresight and cultural impact. In so many ways he was spot on, and our world would likely look very different if we hadn’t had his work as part of the larger cultural discussion. I look forward to reading As We May Think in the years to come, as new technologies emerge and things that seem like magic today become more commonplace.