Politics in the Age of Information

These days, there is a disconnect between politics and the information age that I find disconcerting. We live in an age where information is neatly digitized, indexed, and available upon demand for those who seek it. And yet, there are those public figures who do no such fact checking of their own to some of things things they have said in the past. I concede that positions change over time and with different fact parameters, but what always surprises me is the disconnect to these past statements. It’s not like there isn’t a way to determine previous positions on a topic via searching relevant databases or the internet.

In a recent example, take Rick Warren. In an interview with Larry King, he indicated that he had never spoken against the gay marriage issue embodied in Calfornia’s Proposition 8. Not only is there evidence that he did so, but it is a video. Where is the reconciliation?

Insofar as politics go, the best collection of position or statement reversals lies with The Daily Show. If it is left to satirical entertainment to keep people honest about their positions, then what the hell are journalists doing these days?

the faulty model of newsprint media

At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.) It’s not the only newspaper in trouble within recent memory. The Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer filed in late February and the Rocky Mountain News (Denver) closed its doors just shy of 150 years of printing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped the print edition in favor of a web only edition.

While this traditional type of media is reeling financially, I think that newsprint media and technology have reached a crossroads of opportunity. The best example of this opportunity resides in the newspaper subscription service for the Kindle. The device is capable of downloading and updating content (such as newspaper subscriptions) automatically through available technological networks. This means you can wake up in the morning, roll over, hit your alarm, pick up your reader off the nightstand, and have the paper (so to speak) in your hands. In addition, it satisfies a push for greener technologies that will reduce a carbon footprint such as materials (paper and ink) and fuel. This is the sort of technology that the newspapers should be pushing the market to develop: a cheaper media reader (much cheaper than the Kindle’s $360 price tag) that can allow people to subscribe to their web content.

While there are arguments that print media is a victim of the economy or the public’s reading habits, I personally don’t find them compelling enough. The lack of movement towards digital content represents a lack of innovation on the part of the newspaper companies. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming with the rise of Mobipocket Reader or the Kindle. We are becoming a “fingertip society”, for we expect information to be found at our fingertips when desired. While I cannot deny the pleasurable sensory experience in the feel of newspaper, the smell of the ink, or the crinkles of the sheets when turned, it is the content that is the selling point. A searchable digital format is what people have come to expect in their information experience. While there is much lost from the lack of serendipity browsing in these formats, there are greater gains to be made here in preserving these journalist institutions.

This reasoning also covers readering habits as it relates to how people are perceiving the information around them. Awhile ago (and I can’t remember or find the source now), I remember a  study that indicated that leisure reading is down across all age groups. However, this is an incomplete analysis for it fails to mention that the number of information mediums has gone up. Whether it is the web, text, video, or peer to peer referral, the increase in the types of media and means for people to get information has pushed newsprint media from being one of a few to one of many choices. In part with the aforementioned instant access that society has come to expect, this makes the current newspaper format a dinosaur of the information age. It does make me sad to say that I believe newsprint is on its way out; I have tons of memories of reading the comics with my father or the things I’ve discovered by thumbing through a section. But I cannot deny the financial situation nor the information trends which are moving away from it.

They are late off the starting block, but traditional news media can catch up. The technology is here or a few innovation generations away from where it needs to be for newspapers to fully take advantage of it. I will hope that there is some companies left to take advantage of it.

(Posted at LISNews)

the search for the next big thing

For those unfamiliar with the library field, librarians have a strange relationship with technology. On one hand, the library field has been quick to follow new trends of audio and video technologies. Even as we speak, my library is moving towards Blu Ray and expanding web based technologies such as eBooks and downloadable content such as movies and mp3s. We are working on bringing the library and the patron closer together through the internet with an online calendar, databases, and other remotely accessed sources.

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that libraries were playing catchup to one of the biggest technologies, the internet. When the internet was emerging as a means for global communication, the majority of libraries balked at the addition of computers. Books, it was said at the time, was the main mission of the library. The internet was something that fell outside of that mission. Eventually, obviously, the massive amount of information exchange was too much to ignore. The internet rewrote the mission of the library in terms of the mediums that it could be expressed in. Combined with the linking of broadband communication networks and global information resources, literally a world of knowledge was brought to the simplest library setup.

At work today, I was sitting at my desk and scrolling through LISNews when I stumbled upon this article. While I try to pick apart some of the underlying technology being used there, it was only on the way home that I really thought about what part of my job entails: finding the next big web technology that the library can use. Ok, it’s not exactly my job description, but it is something that my reference and committee work seem to demand. It’s something that certainly interests me since I’m a gadget and technology oriented guy.

As of recently, Facebook and Twitter are the hot fads that some libraries are making their presence. I’m on the fence about Facebook for a couple of reasons. Our library system filters it out due to some major behavioral issues that were arising from it (we had patrons of all ages monopolizing our computer resources for it and straining the system). So, to have the library on Facebook while filtering it presents a kind of hypocrisy. Plus, with the number of applications and other addons, it feels like it could go spammy very quickly. (This same argument could be used for MySpace, another site we filter as well.)

I think my problem with Twitter is that I haven’t been able to integrate it to my life, so I’m not sure how it would fit into others. I have friends who use it and then use LoudTwitter to post a days worth of Tweets to their blogs (a neat way to bring all the messages together). In looking how it is being used in the media (specifically, CNN), I think it runs the risk of generating too much output. With the low character count of a Tweet, it works well for the Facebook style update but not a full on discussion level conversation. Granted, an outlet like CNN would be looking for something that is short so that it can be evaluated for on air use quickly. But I think we lose something if we come to rely on 140 characters or less to get our points across. To me, in larger exchanges, it turns into information overload.

In looking at reader sites such as GoodReads and LibraryThing, I see something good but not a means for the library to hook into it. The current round of automation doesn’t make exporting into one of those sites an option; and in the overall scheme of things, I don’t see it in the spirit in which the site is intended. As they stand right now, they are perfectly lovely reader’s advisory since it offers a fellow booklover’s review of literature that might be taken more to heart than a librarian consulting a resource like Novelist or pamphlets generated by one of my wiser colleagues in the system.

A site like LibraryElf represents something that should be integrated into the next round of library automation: it will send you a text message reminder of library holds, due dates, and reserves. (Currently, in our automation system (Horizon), we can send emails to patrons for holds and reminders for due dates.) But while that represents a future integration into library automation, it does not in fact create an library/patron interface now.

As I look at these sites, for me it still begs a question: what’s the next big technology thing for libraries? What is the next connection out there that will integrate what we do into the lives of our patrons? Or make the access of library resources that much easier? I don’t think libraries will fall behind the same way they did when the internet emerged as I stated in the anecdote at the start of this post, but I want to be on the forefront of the next library technology trend. I’d like to think that TextMarks from Blake’s article and invention would be a technology available now to utilize, but I always come back to the same thing: what’s the next big thing?

With such lofty library philosophical musings like that, I can rest assured that my job will never be dull.

(Cross-posted at LISNews)

a kindle that yields no fire

Within library circles, there has been a continued conversation as to the Kindle. Unlike previous eReaders, this one has taken off like gangbusters. The Oprah show in which the Kindle was in the spotlight has put this $360+ gadget as the must-have gadget for all the literate geeks of the world. And while the library does eventually adopt popular information technology into the collections (CDs, DVDs, video games, and the like), the Kindle has left us scratching our heads.

On the one hand, it has everything a reading consumer could ever want. Relatively easy interface, excellent reading screen, built-in options, and access to a vast array of books, magazines, and other resources. It’s small, it’s energy efficient, and it puts the desired text at the tips of the reader’s hands within a minute. It could quite easily revolutionize the world of literature. Truly, it is the flying car of books.

But, for all of its positives, this flying car runs on the fuel equivalent of soylent green. In exchange for ease of convenience, a user gives away ownership. Emily Walshe reports that, in exchange for their money, a Kindle user is simply purchasing right of access to the content. And as a lease owner, you cannot trade these rights to others (e.g. you cannot ‘loan’ a book or even the Kindle to another person) nor is the Kindle open to other ebooks. The end user is a captive audience, subject to the whims and declarations of Amazon. There is no competitive pricing, competing devices, or alternative venue. When you commit to the Kindle, you are saying the technological equivalent of “I do”.

I will concede that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Amazon is moving the ebook market forward and setting higher and higher standards for the devices. But libraries will leave this technology aside due to the restrictive nature of the terms of service. The most obvious reason is that, as a lending institution, we still cannot technically lend out Kindles without wiping the content each time. (There is a library in NJ that lends out Kindles; the flying monkeys of corporate lawyers have never darkened their doorstep, but it is a real possibility.) This defeats our main mission and purpose. In addition, the DRM is such a quagmire that only an update to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act could create the right conditions for this technological wonder to join our collection.

My personal opinion is that ebook readers are still a couple of years or technology generations from being completely viable. Aside from their staggering cost (especially in this economy), these devices will only truly be a revolution for ebooks once the emphasis changes to the device itself and take off the proprietary controls off of the digital content. The devices at present can only go so far before people will demand access to other publishers. We are a “all in one” sort of society, a people who want to make only one stop on the way home from work, and that’s something that will need to be reckoned with in the future.

The first company to make a device that reads all content will win this race. I just hope I can buy stock in it before it shoots through the roof.

(Sources: LISNews, Wikipedia)