Libraries, the Singularity & You

The following is a post I recently wrote for our staff newsletter thingamajig. It isn’t supposed to be ultra-techy but just introduce some emerging technologies to people that aren’t regularly exposed to such things.

When I was growing up in the 1980’s I was a fan of a lot of the same things as any South Florida guy: the Miami Dolphins, baseball, “The A-Team,” and Terri Nunn from the music group Berlin. On the other hand, if I had an idol, someone I wanted to be when I grew up, it would have been “Case” from William Gibson’s 1984 classic Neuromancer.

I have been thinking about Neuromancer lately because I have been reflecting on how we’re suddenly living in this pseudo-amalgamation of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Accelerando. Most of us would agree that technology is growing exponentially. In other words, not only is technology accelerating but the acceleration is accelerating.

How often have you heard someone say, “I can’t keep up with it all?” Well, you know what? That’s okay. I can’t keep up with it either and I don’t think I’ve gone a day without being on the Internet since 1994. As I see it, the art is not to know everything, but to know the right things. As we speed toward technological singularity, the art of information is not always about how much you know, but rather how good are you at filtering out what you don’t need to know?

In some senses, we’re all a little bit more like Gibson’s Henry Dorsett Case navigating the virtual reality “cyberspace” of Neuromancer than we realize.

With that said, here are some trends I’ve come across over the past year accompanied with some thoughts of mine that are opinion and not meant to be taken as gospel:

  • The iPad – Yes, it is basically an oversized iPod Touch. For some reason it uses the antiquated 4X3 aspect ratio instead of widescreen. But, could you imagine being in college, storing all of your textbooks in it, searching all of those textbooks in seconds, recording audio of your professor’s lectures, linking up related internet articles, and even taking class notes in it? All in one place? It’s just one example of many possible revolutions this could precipitate. Not so fast, though: many other companies are developing tablet style computers that operate similarly to the iPad, so Apple doesn’t have nearly the same head start they had with the iPhone. In addition, the other companies will probably feature a more open operating system. Apple’s closed system of applications could come back to haunt them here.
  • Instapaper – How often have you seen an interesting article on the Internet but wanted to save it to read later? This free site allows you to click a bookmark to save any web page to read later, from any computer connected to the Internet. Wait, did I say computer? I should have also said the iPhone, Kindle, Nook, and other readers. Instapaper is so big it is already becoming a verb as in, “If you see me in line at the grocery store reading about the Prometheus tree, it’s because I instapapered it.”
  • Tumblr/Posterous – These are a little bit like Twitter, Facebook, and blogging all rolled into one. You can follow people like Twitter, but you can also post videos and pictures directly on your personal feed for your friends to see. You can also write full-fledged blog posts right in the stream as well.
  • qrcodeQR Codes – Credit goes to @librariantom for introducing me to this one. A QR code is a funny square barcode that many mobile phones can read. How is this useful? They operate like real-world hyperlinks. Imagine a library book tagged with a QR code. Scan it with your smartphone and you could immediately see other books by that author in our system, their availability, or their page. What if I come up with my own QR code and post it at my office entrance? It could link to my current schedule or calendar so you know where I am if I’m not there.
  • Barcode Readers on Phones – This directly relates to QR codes, but it can go even deeper. With the county’s fitness program in full swing, did you know you can watch your weight with your phone? Scan the barcode on the food box or wrapper and Daily Burn’s “Food Scanner” can automatically add the calories up for you. Want to comparison shop? Scan an item in stores with the “RedLaser” app and your phone looks up the competitors’ pricing.
  • eBooks, Piracy, and DRM – Currently, anyone that can use Google can find easy ways to un-protect eBooks with DRM protection. This includes Kindle, Nook, and the Adobe Epub DRM that our Overdrive Digital Library uses. What does this mean? If someone wanted to, they could give their friends copies of eBooks they bought or even check out an eBook from our Digital Library, duplicate it and keep it forever. On the other hand, sales of eBooks have increased at some publishers that dropped all DRM protection. Apple’s iTunes store had this issue a while ago and guess what happened! They eventually dropped all DRM protection. The problem with DRM has always been this: it punishes those who get things legally and rewards those that get it illegally (if you download an eBook illegally, you’re getting it DRM-free). That’s not really a strategy that makes sense to me.
  • Dropbox – There are several of these kinds of backup/file synchronization apps, but none of them seem as fluid and seamless as Dropbox. Imagine having a “Dropbox” folder on every computer you use. The small Dropbox app keeps that folder synchronized across every computer you use. You get 2 gigs of storage completely free.
  • Google Buzz – This is a late update that has emerged just since I wrote the original version of this article. What is it? It’s one of those things that is easier to understand if you just use it. Imagine a central location that automatically aggregates much of your online activity. It is a bit like Twitter except it allows images, blogs, videos and other online sites to automatically publish information to your “Buzz” stream. In a sense it is actually most similar to Tumblr or Posterous, except it allows external sites to automatically publish to your stream more easily. There have been serious privacy issues with Buzz thus far but Google is already modifying how Buzz works based on these concerns.

There are a few things that I’ve been watching lately. There are things closer to that bleeding edge, but that’ll be for a later date.

Incidentally, I should mention I originally planned this article to be more conceptual, and about the possible responsibilities of a library in a world where technology is accelerating with such speed, but I realized quickly that our staff newsletter wasn’t really the medium. At some point I may revisit that conceptual analysis of the singularity and libraries.

2 Comments on “Libraries, the Singularity & You”

  1. Great highlighting of recent trends. The iPad designers likely adopted the 4:3 aspect ration because it’s close to the aspect ratio of an 8.5×11 sheet of paper…

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