Libraries: Raising the Numerator

Something has gone wrong in the organisation, production, and maintenance of things. This is no pathetic fallacy, for it’s not just that we constantly confront the world of commodified objects as a world of social relations. It’s that we confront that world of commodified objects as a hostile world of social relations of hatred, coercion, competition, boredom, emiseration, and exploitation. The entire built world of capitalism is a literal record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions, stacked millions of hours high. And it is that which surrounds us, at all moments. -Evan Calder Williams, Hostile Object Theory

The tone here is pretty angry, which is something I’m less likely to stand behind, but this is worth considering in the context of libraries, public, academic, or otherwise. That is to say, the social role of libraries: a polite buffer zone that pulls our resources out of the social-coded world of commodities and into a different social order. At he very least, something along the tones of Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air which follows in the Lessig tradition of calling for open intellectual commons, but spends more time talking about the legal framework and cultural understanding of “the commons.” Lately, Google has fallen to this increasing commodification of what was mythically thought of as the “free” internet. It’s search has fallen to a plethora of useless websites when it comes to reference questions, and wikipedia is still holding strong as the quick-and-dirty but still helpful internet reference of choice. Essentially, I feel like the increase in commodified reference is the result of Google posing to be merely an aggregator as opposed to a curator, and as a result, it suffers from other companies gaming it to race to the bottom line. When our information is turned into a raw commodity, it takes on the characteristics that Willams talks about, “hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions.” Sadly, even the Harvard Business Review is savvy enough to make a similar point:

Consider a mini-case study: America. America’s got a (major) competitiveness problem: its goods simply aren’t in enough demand by the rest of the world — and it isn’t all the fault of China deliberately keeping its currency undervalued. More deeply, it’s the fault of a three decades spent chasing lowest common denominators, by any means necessary, instead of elevating numerators even slightly. To get serious about igniting its exports, America’s going to have to elevate the numerator, setting incentives for a new generation of products, services, markets, industries that produce stuff that’s envied, treasured, and adored by people across the globe. -Umair Haque, The New Calculus of Competition

I’m skeptical of this for one reason: Haque predicates the raising of the numerator on the happiness that a given product can achieve, and puts this in front of creating an enduring benefit to society. But information and the creation of new knowledge is not really a happiness game, it is ideally part of the “creating an enduring benefit to society” game. Happiness that can be bought is of a dubious sort, and while buying and selling is not inherently evil, the profit motive rarely produces the effect that Haque is after. More often, it races to the lowest common denominator, and likely will continue to do so.  It’s our job to raise the numerator, and the best way to do that is to remove the production of knowledge and access to information from the marketplace. This might apply more to publicly funded libraries, but all of them have to potential to cut information out of the cycle of buy/sell that is closely monitored by the strictures of intellectual property, interrupting the record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions by providing a place for those things to be without the expectations that formerly encumbered them.

FTW! and getting beyond us.

You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system. -Arlo Guthrie via Robert Greco

A well-ordered humanism does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self. -Claude Levi-Strauss via Robert Greco

These quotes summed up my feelings about our information resources and the web at large. They are full of quirks, tricks and snares, and my best reference work and teaching involves helping the people I work with to be able to game information to their advantage. Any database is an enemy that obstructs real understanding of how things relate to one another. Reference is not the art of designing better systems or databases, full of their special biases and publishers agreements, layered by proprietary search algorithms. It is the art of helping people transcend them. To ask for better systems is to ask for a better way for libraries to co-opt individual thought into our own systems of organization, to flatten the originality of the query to better fit our technology. Reference needs to be that well-ordered humanism that does not put itself before those it serves.

Libraries and the continued importance of curatorship.

From Wally at iNode: we are going to be more about data, early parts of the scholarly communication process, and “We’ll still be doing the “special collections and archives” thing as that will be a large part of what differentiates libraries.” His whole post is worth a read, but i think it only goes part of the way. While we might have reduced institutional footprints, I also believe that what will set us apart is the idea of curatorship. This is the dreaded “gatekeeper analogy that many in the library world are trying to diminish, but the idea is worth a second look. In an information environment that is too large for people to comprehend, then we need some way to organize things to understand it. Included in this is the idea that while we can lease a lot of content, it is worth considering that we don’t need access to everything (the Google approach), but just to the things our patrons actually need. Maybe we as librarians need to talk to our faculty rather than rely upon vendors to tell us what they think our faculty needs. This is curatorship, being a gatekeeper to make sure that important resources are not spent on what is not needed.


Rebeca Horton at the Curator Magazine blog quotes a 1994 Wired article by Paul Saffo, which is worth re-quoting here:

The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintessentially human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. (emphasis added by Horton)

That is worth considering. Horton applies this to the design of information design, which is ultimately done by a human being, who reflects upon how data is visualized, mapped, filtered, etc. Even though this is done by computers, the design is still human, starting which what information to process and onwards. There is still a human curator. Librarians who are connected to their faculty and students don’t need to fear their role as curators. It is an important part of what we do.  The creation of a point-of-view is part of creating new knowledge that can be acted on, not just the passive intake of data. The manipulation of data is a reflective task that is part of progress, not a hindrance to it.

Publishing Industry and Music Industry

The most obvious comparison between these two giants of intellectual property distribution is the digital connection: the music industry had a boom in the last couple of years that petered out, which relied on iTunes and streaming services, while pay-for-access still had trouble, and access through free channels is still the way to go. The widespread supposition is that live shows and higher amounts of participation in music is the way of the future, less than passive consumption. When all of the hoopla about “Millennials” came out, how they demanded more active participation in their classrooms, their culture, and in their society, this seems to mesh well. In my mind, this seems to have some connection with the diversification of music outside of the major labels, and the rise of independent labels and musicians.

Could the same thing happen to the publishing industry? Over at the comments section of a blog post about the total failure of libraries hearkening in a “Digital Underclass” (as if there wasn’t one already), one commenter posted:

Today, authors use publishers for distribution but that may change. They may start publishing their works themselves – just as some musicians do.

The reply was: “Never happen.” Looks like someone hadn’t been paying attention. In addition to self publishing sites, and Amazon getting in trouble after a really bad PR job about pedophile handbooks for the Kindle, it’s clear that self-publishing, along with the rise of small and successful publishing houses, that people are actively participating in the creation and wider distribution of content.

User-centeredness, and its’ accompanying illusions.

Starting with a double-pilfered quote:

” ‘[F]orgetting is the friend of learning. When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.’ - Dr. Nate Kornell” -robertgreco

This quote rattled around for a little because I wasn’t sure of what to do with it. I find it, for the most part, to be pretty true. It made me think of the whole “end of forgetting” thing, also of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.In the lattter, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger makes a case for being able to “forget” some of our youthful transgressions so that we can move forward, both as individuals, but more importantly, as a society as a whole. It only somewhat runs counter to the whole “if you don’t know your history, you’re going to repeat it” argument, but there is something to be said about relearning things in different contexts that sometimes ends up moving from knowing a piece of information to actually gaining some higher form of knowledge.

Multiple re-learnings=context=knowledge?

So what about user-centeredness? Look at Google Instant and the much goofier Google Scribe, both of which use some form of automation to provide you with suggestions that are designed to anticipate you. In the case of Scribe, a pre-loaded stock of language is designed to fill in those nagging blank-outs that happen when you write.  Over at Library Ad Infinitum, Matthew Battles gave Scribe a test run, and came to a really fun conclusion:

As the Scribe’s algorithms loom dark and uncanny from a welter of vocabulary, it’s clear that the choices come from a catalogue of ingrown snippets harvested in the course of Google’s (and our own) massively parallel crawlings of the webs. These are snippets spooning within snippets, calling up strange and halting patterns, whorls and arabesques and St. Vitus dances. What I wonder is this: although simpler to the point of horror, how much does this look like our own minds’ inner workings at the brink of evocation?

More than likely, Scribe is more like us than we care to admit as it locks into its’ St. Vitus dance, but what Scribe also does is allows the writer to skate. Nevermind not creating new knowledge for the writer, it goes all the way to nonsense. Thinking for you was not the goal of Scribe. According to Alex Chitu of the Google Operating System, “(u)sing information from what you have already typed in a document, Google Scribe provides related word or phrase completion suggestions. In addition to saving keystrokes, Google Scribe’s suggestions indicate correct or popular phrases to use.” If we do learn by writing, or just by communicating something to others in our own words (why else would Barzun suggest that we take notes by paraphrasing?), then having some kind of “autofill,” especially one that goes as far as to suggest a popular or correct phrase kills the process. Re-learning things in a new context, namely by putting them in one’s own context is a way to create knowledge. Scribe at least partially frustrates that process. The instant search speeds up this frustration of thought, much like an interrupting cow.

So, is this User-centered? Yes. It uses many users data, including one’s own, to provide a service to make the most efficient use of the user’s time. Like the slow media folks, it begs the question, is faster and/or easier always better? Over at, Jason Kottke calls Nick Bilton out on his “everything-centered-around-you” worldview:

In the political world, the rough analog to this digital media future is democracy. But as we’ve seen, the seeming transfer of control from lawmakers to the people is just that: seeming. To a large degree, the big media and technology companies — particularly the de facto monopolies like the mobile carriers, cable companies, etc. — still control the consumer experience. The future will be personalized, but don’t think you’ll get everything you want when you want it.

Further reading of Bilton’s essay shows his blind side even more:

Once this happens, we will see more customization and personalization of information, entertainment and advertising. For instance, if I am reading the newspaper at 4 p.m. in Brooklyn, the content I see should reflect the time of day (near dinner), the place (what’s nearby) and more.

The news feed I’m reading should also be intelligent enough to know what I’ve already read that day and what I haven’t. It should factor in stories my friends recommend and what’s being discussed on my social networks. Most important, these systems should do this without my having to instruct them or tell them anything.

Bilton assumes that anything that can be put into the flow of the news feed is fair game for monetization. Given the nature of many companies to monetize everything they can see, Bilton wagers that this will work out well in the end. But important information, just because it does not have a monetary assignment, will quickly fall out of the news feed, whether or not somebody wants it because if it doesn’t make money, then companies that sell information won’t carry it.

More importantly, this style of content provision does the same thing to our information flows as Google Scribe does to writing. It produces a continuous cycle of  electronically harvested information that results in gibberish. We are not allowed to forget and re-learn, because the news feed does the learning for us.

Am I repeating myself?

This blog post costs….

how i got here the old way.

A lot of things have been knotting themselves together in my head, especially the issue of being able to justify what I do with my life, I feel like pseudo-techno-metrics are creeping in.

In a post about disintermediation in “education 2.0″, Rob Tucker begins with the idea that the design of technologies often happen to us, and that the disintermediation of educators from those being educated will increase, much like it did in the travel and bookselling businesses. He proposes that “(i)f we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge, the disintermediation could be near total,” as in his mind, educators, the as “middle-men” of education take away resources from the value of the educational experience. This seems like an over-simplification of what education is. If this were “The Matrix,” his point makes sense, but there are many other reasons why we have educators aside from functioning as funnels for “knowledge” that society uses to dump stuff into people’s heads.

It’s not all bad, really. Tucker supposes that students will be “self-paced, self-directed, self-driven.” Since there still might need to be physical places, “schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers – hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles.” This sounds like a library, but is that really a good format for schools? First of all, that’s a lot of “self” and part of education is learning about things outside of one’s own self, or at least learn how to play well with others. While he gives some primacy for relationship building, if you are relentlessly pursuing your own course, guided by AI-driven “counselors,” do you really build relationships, or do you treat others like some kind of capital investment, which you will let go of once they no longer meet your need?

The businessification of education echos the increasing role of metrics in our work and daily lives: we are all supposed to be measurable. Whereas Ester Duflo’s Poverty Action Lab recognizes the limits of measurement (specifically in using it to manage complex decisions) when it comes to people, Tucker clearly does not. The impulse being followed is that adding another person to a “value-chain” is a drain, assuming that educators add no value that cannot be embedded into some kind of automated courseware. A couple of days later, another O’Reilly blogger, Marie Bjerede wrote an entire post pointing out that “the designers can accurately predict what users will need in perpetuity and develop a static one-size-fits-all product.” Disintermediated education is a one-size-fits all concept and the idea that educators do not add value is a cost-cutting wet-dream. Education is not the grocery store checkout line or a travel agency. Knowledge is a complex thing, as is its’ transmission, and educators facilitate the learning process in a less than “one-size-fits-all” way. Tucker thinks that a business model fits completely as an educational model.

The mistaken idea that you can make education a business is chronic, and given the collapse of the University of California system, it’s getting to the red line rather quickly. In a series of posts at Art21, independent “anti-authoritarian scholar” (an oxymoron?) Marc Herbst leans into this idea pretty hard:

“Theoretically, the movements are concurrent with the critical clarifications of immaterial labor; witness how universities change policies to better commodify thought-work while streamlining and uncritically redefining education. Folks like Gigi Rogero and websites like edufactory have been creating critical theory around this phenomenon of this neoliberalization of education.”

All of this came back to mind when I saw this little post from Mashable citing that Google’s Pac-Man logo cost society (businesses, etc.) 4,819,352 hours of time, or $120,483,800 in productivity. This according to people whose business it is to monitor people and deliver optimum human capital. This they called a “tragedy“:  employees spent 36 seconds on average messing with the thing. If this isn’t a prime example goofy techno-metrics and business-think overkill, I’m not sure what is. Maybe the answer is to provide students and people with meaningful and important work, and the metrics will help measure their success.