The last event I attended at ACRL was a talk by Jaron Lanier on “The Bi-Polar Library: How Humanizing and Digitizing Must Both Be Advanced.” Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author. He spoke about the nature of power in the digital age.
It used to be that the more accessible the information, the more democratic the society–knowledge is power. The open access movement in libraries and publishing is acting on this principle. But the digital revolution has changed all that. Because there is so much freely-available information, the power now resides with companies such as Google, Amazon and others that have systems to compile and analyze vast amounts of information, and sell the analyses to those who use them for profit and influence.
A person who uses Facebook, Twitter, and other social media is not ultimately their customer, but their product, or at least the raw material out of which is created the analyses that are really profitable. In the long term, the combination of open access to information and private re-packaging and selling of information is tending to destroy individuality and initiative. “If everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.” (W. S. Gilbert, The Gondoliers).
The solution to the dehumanizing effects of too much information is not to shun technology, but to humanize it–to celebrate individuality and the importance of the person over aggregate data. Lanier spoke of his experience with reference librarians who were ‘folk artists’ of their subjects–they were able to respond personally to his questions and guide him to unlikely resources that led to unexpected–and better–results. This kind of virtuosity is something that automated search engines do not have. Lanier’s advice to librarians is to play up this virtuosity–re-romanticize libraries and librarians.
Libraries can also help solve the problem of private re-packaging and selling of information, by serving as a neutral ground for providing access to data analyses that are now private. This is a very familiar role for libraries; in the days when information was power libraries provided free (or, largely free) access to information regardless of ability to pay.
Jaron Lanier ended his talk by playing on a Laotian instrument called a Khaen. This is a video from a performance of his at Rollins College: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x59qhN5xzhk
His latest book, You Are Not a Gadget, will be available soon in the Science Library.