David Bade on technology and librarianship

The UIUC PLG chapter event I linked to yesterday was a part of a series. This past Monday the group hosted David Bade in a discussion event titled Technology Waits For No One: Thinking About Technology, Progress and Responsibility in Academic Librarianship. David has given me permission to post the transcript of his presentation here.

Following his brief essay about technology are snippets by eleven thinkers on technology which David included in his presentation as food for further discussion and thought.

Technology waits for no one? Thinking about technology, progress and responsibility in academic librarianship

Not long ago a computer scientist associated with the Bamboo project gave a talk at the University of Chicago in which he described that project. He proudly noted that while many of the professors who had heard him describe the project had initially been skeptical, after viewing his demonstration they had fervently embraced‚Äîand I use his own words‚Äîthe “magic” and the “miracles” that flow from Bamboo.

I have long thought that one of the persistent problems in librarianship is a widespread misunderstanding of information technologies. The discourse surrounding library technologies reveals desires and expectations appropriate to the marketing associated with them but rarely the critical reflection appropriate to an academic institution. In the library literature critics are either ignored, footnoted but not discussed, or attacked as being conservatives, luddites or Don Quijotes.

Computer scientists and information scientists are those who ought to have the clearest understanding of computers and information technologies; when we find them engaged in the marketing of magic and miracles we know that they are intellectually on the same level as Jimmy Swaggart. I do not exaggerate: to speak of magic and miracles is to proclaim one’s incapacity to understand, or, in the case of the salesman, the will to mystify and deceive, like the proverbial hucksters and charlatans dealing in snake-oils and psychic or religious healing. Unfortunately our Bamboo salesman was not an isolated freak; he seems to be representative not only of salesman-engineers like Bill Gates, Nicholas Negroponte and David Weinberger, but of many librarians as well.

Andrea Mercado’s hoped-for library school assumes that neither I nor George Steiner are capable of using the library, much less helping others use it. Her library will be run by tech-savvy marketers, not scholars. This is the heart of my interest and I have stated it before: the divorce between the practices academic libraries are supposed to support, and the widespread attitude that librarians are professionally occupied with knowing how to use information technologies, or worse, they (we) are simply information providers. I begin with a basic assumption: given a particular practice such as research in the sciences or humanities, the development and use of tools to support those practices requires a knowledge of those practices, not simply familiarity with the operating manual of some tool, whether online catalog, printed index or a Web2.0 application.

George Steiner recently argued that progress in the “hard” sciences and technology (technosciences, Hottois would say, since he claims they are now inseparable) opens new paths into the future, while progress in the humanities and social sciences leads to deeper understanding of the past, which is to say of ourselves. Part of that work of understanding must be understanding technology, not just past technologies, but today’s and our imaginations for tomorrow’s as well. Only when we understand can we decide whether or not some change is progress or regress. Yet our understanding of what happens today will certainly change as the consequences of today’s actions gradually unfold. Like the inventors of DDT, the inventors of information technologies have almost no grasp of what they are actually doing and what these technologies will mean to future generations. Our understanding can never be “once and for all” because the future will reveal what we could not imagine, much less know, today.

Both the development and use of technologies require some understanding of technologies, human beings, human society, nature and how all these jointly shape and change the world. Most of those understandings are unconscious, unstated, unexamined and immensely consequential. To leave those assumptions unexamined simply means that we can never speak of progress, nor of regress, but only of change, stripped of all evaluation and interpretation. The practices of philosophy, the social and ecological sciences and humanistic scholarship are oriented towards bringing to light those assumptions, examining them, and criticizing them in light of the philosopher’s, the scientist’s and the scholar’s theories. These in turn are undeniably shaped by desires, hopes, ethical, political and metaphysical assumptions, commitments and intellectual or pathological orientations. Dissent and debate arise more often out of these latter desires and orientations than out of theory because our lives matter to us in ways that theories never can.

For Hottois, Virilio and Ellul the development and use of technologies of any sort must be accompanied by critical examination from as many perspectives as life provides. Without that critical activity, we shall be submitting ourselves blindly to a truly archaic servitude; technology as a “god”is far more cruel and inhuman than the divinities, priests, kings and tyrants of the past precisely because of the power and efficacy of our technologies. It is not by accident that this activity‚Äîcritical inquiry in pursuit of understanding‚Äîhappens to be‚Äîor at least formerly was‚Äîthe raison d’?™tre for the existence of the academic library. And I argue and urge that librarianship be firmly rooted in that activity and not simply a chase to learn how to use the latest or the most popular technologies on the market. As Andrew Abbott put it, ” the future of serious library scholarship lies in a critically constructive and intense engagement with technology, not a running from it or a welcoming embrace.” Librarianship always involves an interpretation, a symbolic accompaniment of technologies, not simply their use.

“Technology waits for no one” Ms. Mercado claims, but technology is not going anywhere. WE are going somewhere, even if we do not know where, and we make technologies to aide us in doing what it is that we want to do. It is that “we” that we must not forget, for it is that same “we” that brings us both GoogleBooks and the Gulag. Among librarians, discussions of the Internet, the Semantic Web, Library2.0 and so on are all too often evidence that we are not engaged in the lucid, critical examination of our ideas and their incarnation in technologies and techniques, but rather irrationally and archaically enslaved to the magic and miracles hawked in the marketplace.

Vico: De antiquissima Italorum sapientia ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda libri tres.
[Gianbattista Vico. English translation available from Cornell Univ. Press: On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians.]
Verum et factum convertuntur. (The true and the made are convertible)
Verum esse ipsum factum. (The norm of the truth is to have made it, or: The true is precisely what is made)
[Commentary by Verene: The true for Vico is something that is made by mind, the principle of human or divine knowledge. Making, for Vico, is combining elements into a whole. the whole may be a word, an idea, or a thing. As legere (to read) is to combine writen elements into words, so intelligere (to understand) is to combine in mind all the parts of a thing in order to express the most perfect idea of it. … God knows completely because God’s mind reads and combines all the elements of things in terms of both their inner nature and their outer appearance. The human mind, because it does not make the actual nature of the things it knows, never can understand things fully. What is true for the human mind is made by combining the elements of things in their outward existence.]

Marx: Thesen ?ºber Feuerbach, #11.

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es k??mmt darauf an, sie zu ver?§ndern. (The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.)

Ellul: Changer de r?©volution.
[Jacques Ellul. Changer de r?©volution: l’in?©luctable prol?©tariat. Paris: Seuil, 1982. no English version]
Automation, cybernetisation and informatics: these aspects of technical progress carry to the extreme the contradiction, i.e. the fact that these means are now leading to an absolute concentration, a control of all, a determinism, an impossibility for a human being to remain a free individual. But perhaps also to present the contrary. Microcomputers, videos, etc. are extraordinarily individualising instruments that would permit the diffusion of tasks and independence… But here again this is not possible under capitalism: it must come about that social structures change, the interests of money eradicated, founded upon the free speech of the individual…

Illich: Computer literacy and the cybernetic dream.
[Ivan Illich. Rivers north of the future: the testament of Ivan Illich. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2005. From chapter entitled Computer literacy and the cybernetic dream.]
For S., a statement is an utterance; behind each utterance there is somebody who means what she says. … For F., words are units of information that he strings together into a message. … As the two mind-sets confront each other, both can harden into ideologies. … For the anti-computer fundamentalists a trip through computerland, and some fun with controls, is a necessary ingredient for sanity in this age. Those of you who study computer literacy sometimes forget its importance as a means of exorcism against the paralyzing spell the computer can cast. But I know many F.s who, under this spell, have turned into zombies, a danger Maurice Merleau-Ponty clearly foresaw almost thirty years ago. He then said‚Äîand I quote‚Äîthat “cyberneticism has become an ideology. In this ideology human creations are derived from natural information processes, which in turn have been conceived on the model of man-as-a-computer.” In this mind-state, science dreams up and “constructs man and history on the basis of a few abstract indices” and for those who engage in this dreaming “man in reality becomes that manipulandum which he takes himself to be.”

Steiner: My unwritten books.
[George Steiner. My unwritten books. NY: New Directions, 2008. From chapter III: The tongues of eros.]
It is the seemingly wasteful plethora of languages which allows us to articulate alternatives to reality, to speak freedom within servitude … Without the great octave of possible grammars such negation and “alterity,” this wager on tomorrow would not be feasible. …
The true catastrophe at Babel is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, “multinational” tongues. This reduction, formidably fueled by the mass market and information technology, is now reshaping the globe. …

The most compendious of dictionaries is no more than an abridged shorthand, obsolete even as it is published. … speech is molded by gender. Women and men often do not purpose or signify the same thing when uttering or writing the identical word. Not taking “No” for an answer is a symbolic pointer. Shifts in meaning and intentionality within and across generations are constant. … This looks to be so in our accelerated present, between age groups separated by the very mechanics of information. Thus different levels in society, different localities, genders, age groups can come close to mutual incomprehension. The fountain pen does not speak to the iPod. …

In essence the political is the negation of the private, although it may well be its enabling framework. … Questionaires, officious documents to be filled out, the rampant vulgarities of interviewers and inquisitors, the “candid camera,” and the yapping of the phone seem to me to be the nightmare unleashed by the technologies of information. Bear in mind the meanings of the term “informer.” In the name of clinical efficacy, of national security, of fiscal transparency our private lives are scrutinized, recorded and manipulated. Concomitantly, the arts of solitude, of guarded discretion, of that inviolate silence which Pascal placed at the heart of true civility and adulthood have withered.

Virilio: Un paysage d’?©v?©nements
[Paul Virilio. Un paysage d’?©v?©nements. Paris: Galil?©e, 1996. do not remember the chapter; not translated in the English version (A landscape of events)]
Here we see the shift that happens, in a liberal state, from direct political responsability to “substitute agents”, first bureaucratic substitutes, then technocratic, and finally techno-managers in a system of experts; and ahead, 5th generation computers, AI and the installation of expert systems in Japan and the USA capable of themselves making the decisions required in certain urgent situations where time for responsible human reflection (civil or military) is lacking.
[I read and translated this from the French version because this and several other chapters were omitted from the English translation. As is so often the case, this was nowhere indicated, not in the book nor in the publisher’s information nor in the bibliographic record in OCLC. Only the last of these problems was I able to do anything about.]

Rosamond Rhodes: Genetic links, family ties and social bonds: rights and responsibilities in the face of genetic knowledge.

No one has a right to genetic ignorance.

An old French peasant (quoted in Virilio: Un paysage d’?©v?©nements).
[from Paul Virilio op cit., unlike VI above, this passage is in the English translation, though the translation given is my own: A landscape of events. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2000.]
Asked about what, in his opinion, had been the greatest modern calamity, an old peasant of the ?éle de France responded without hesitation: “the news [les informations].” And when he was asked to elaborate: “For me the war of 1914 came out of nowhere, from one day to the next no one could see what would happen. The evening of the general mobilization we were peaceful, no one here dreamed of the war and yet we were not even 100 kilometers from Paris. … But later with the radio and then television, we felt like we were always on the eve of a war or some catastrophe, and that was unlivable.”

Gras: Grandeur et dependence: sociologie des macro-syst?®mes techniques.
[Alain Gras, with Sophie L. Poirot-Delpech. Grandeur et d?©pendance: sociologie des macro-syst?®mes techniques. Paris: PUF, 1993. ]
Technique imposes itself as a manner of thinking the world, it is a system of the production of ideas and representations of nature far more than a system of actions on that nature.

Hottois: Essais de philosophie bio?©thique et biopolitique.
[Gilbert Hottois. Essais de philosophie bio?©thique et biopolitique. Paris: Vrin, 1999.]
It is techno-science, or more exactly techno-scientists and those who collaborate with them, who will invent and produce the future in a dominant manner. It is no longer symbolic creativity, such as the interpretation of traditions, that will lead the way in creating the future. … Symbolization will accompany the technosciences… Spontaneously savage and irrationally technophobic or technophilic, but more and more often informed and rational… That accompaniment is not passive: it orients, restrains, encourages and prohibits. … This means that the symbolic cannot serve technoscience, nor can the latter serve the symbolic. The first form of domination engenders theocracy, the second technocracy. Both are extremely dangerous precisely because of the technical developments themselves. Both are deadening because they conceive, reproduce and understand by putting the symbolic and technoscience in the service of a particular form which cannot evolve.

Rawlinson: Reibadailty

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers of a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

3 comments on “David Bade on technology and librarianship

  1. Great essay, thanks.

    Struck by this:
    “[snip]…when we find them engaged in the marketing of magic and miracles we know that they are intellectually on the same level as Jimmy Swaggart…[snip] representative not only of salesman-engineers like Bill Gates, Nicholas Negroponte and David Weinberger, but of many librarians as well.”

    It resonates with me because I recall just last week at the annual Texas Library Association meeting listening to Roy Tennant very explicitly refer to the solitary Google-like search box as “where the magic happens”.

    Roy’s talk was entitled “The Future of the Catalog”, to which his short answer was “it doesn’t have one”; This would’ve made me angrier in my younger years, but I’ve come to recognize it for what it is, pure shock-value rhetoric for its own sake. Trying to be “new/edgy”, etc.

    I understood what Tennant was saying, but I disagreed with a number of his base assumptions (such as unqualified, blanket statements like “libraries are about information”, which leaves critics like Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman to respond “well, yes, and no.”), and was turned off by the pseudo-populist anti-intellectualism that informed his whole presentation, belittling librarians for coming up with all these complex interfaces that only other librarians know how to use, while our ignorant “brain dead” (Tennant’s own words) users just want the one-size-fits-all searchbox.

    The best compromise I could come up with walking away from this talk was “fine, give ’em their single Google-esque metasearch box as a default, but keep optional the ‘scary’ advanced features available for use by professional reference librarians who actually know what they’re doing.”

    One of the SLIS professors in the Q&A intimated that Tennant could be construed as advocating a “dumbing down” of library tools; he bristled at this and claims he is trying to “smart them up”, and that to do so of course requires lots more work “on the back end”. He explained the ILS will still be there to manage circulation, acquisitions, and yes, cataloging, but it will be tied to a unified “discovery tool”.

    There seems to be a lot of anxiety (much of it misplaced, I think) about libraries “hiding” their resources behind an OPAC that is “invisible” to Google and other search engines. Tennant advocated we (libraries) need to “go where our users are”, draw them in, etc, and while I’m all for library outreach, I couldn’t help but think to myself a turn on the old adage about horses and water…”You can put a search box on their desktop, but you cannot make them click”.

    I also liked this point by Bade:
    “…In the library literature critics are either ignored, footnoted but not discussed, or attacked as being conservatives, luddites or Don Quijotes.”

    Or Elitists. But I happen to agree with Thomas Mann that–especially in academic libraries, in our quest to make our resources more prominent and easy-to-use, we must at the same time not “dumb down” such tools that we do real damage to serious scholars and hinder their ability to do research. Yes, these are certainly a select group of “expert” users, and to focus our efforts on them may smack of “Elitism”, but so be it. They are making the most use of our academic libraries, and are the ones best served by such institutions. We alienate them if we pander to the ignorant masses too much, and do so at our peril. In more advanced research, it becomes equally important to know what you can safely ignore, to narrow recall down to the most precise results possible. This still requires professional cataloging done well, and skilled Reference librarians who know how to use it.

  2. I read several of Jacques Ellul’s books many years ago. He first became well known for his book The Technological Society, which was written in the early 60s. I believe almost all of his writing pre-dates the personal computer revolution that began in the mid-70s. He has been described as a Christian anarchist, and in that sense I don’t think he would see either communism, socialism or capitalism as the solution to the challenges posed to individual freedom by the advances of modern technology.

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