Monday, April 04, 2011

Starting UKSG in a state of ... informed bewilderment

"The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." John Naughton (Observer columnist and OU academic) opens with this striking William Gibson quote, reminding us that you only discover new things if you know where to look and are willing to pay attention. We're in a state of "informed bewilderment", with no idea how the internet revolution will pan out, so should stop trying to predict the future, and pay attention to what's already here.

Dissolving value chains
This is either an exciting, fulfilling & rewarding time ... or a traumatic experience that is likely to be destructive to some well-established businesses (even industries). The internet is "a vast global machine for springing surprises ... a phenomenal enabler of disruption." (Read Barbara von Shewick's "Internet Architecture and Innovation", Jonathan Zittrain's "The Future of the internet - and how to stop it" or John's own "A brief history of the future"). In programming terms, "disruption is a feature, not a bug". It cuts out the middlemen that have been such an enduring feature of our economy - journalists, travel agents .. and librarians, and publishers? "The net dissolves value chains" - where once journalism and classified advertising had a happy marriage, now one is helped by the internet and the other is disrupted. It's impossible to predict when open access will overtake closed access in the scholarly ecosystem, but the direction of funding etc indicates clearly where we're headed, so we need to pay attention to the existing change.

An increasingly complex ecosystem
The scholarly ecosystem has grown complex in its proliferation (of publishers, authors, institutions etc), and "for a system to be viable, it has to match the complexity of its environment." But there's not a single organism in our ecosystem able to match the complexity of our environment. Complexity is the new reality, and complex systems are intrinsically unpredictable. The banking crisis warns us of the dangers of being dependent on a system so complex that few people understand it, a system that is too complex to be modelled, too complex to be understood.

The avalanche of data in science
Librarians' functions have traditionally been determined largely by the physical aspects of materials and their housing. Value and roles were clear in the print ecosystem, whereas now, many students don't visit the physical library. Teaching, scholarship and research increasingly take place in a digital environment; librarians will need to move to where the action is ("from place to space"). The traditional information skills will need overhauling. Cornell's "Seven Steps of the Research Process" starts with encyclopedias and catalogues and only fleetingly, in step 5, refers to finding "internet resources". This already doesn't reflect how students behave. We need to adjust to new realities in science, which is becoming more data intensive. John closes by quoting Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

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