• Too Early for Dr. Who References?

    Posted on September 28th, 2011 Rebecca No comments

    Cybermen (2006)

    Although it may be too early in the course to admit Dr. Who fandom, this week’s readings deem that admission completely appropriate, I think!

    Both the Wiener piece (“Men, Machines, and the World About”) and the Licklider piece (“Man-Computer Symbiosis”) immediately brought to mind the Cybermen of Dr. Who’s world; Wiener, for bringing the prefix “cyber” into English usage and Licklider, for envisioning “human brains and computing machines…coupled together very tightly” (p. 74).  You can read more about the Cybermen here, but the general idea is that they were originally a species of humanoids that began adding artificial parts in order to preserve themselves, ultimately developing an emotionless race that will “delete” anything incompatible with system (which is, of course, often their downfall, especially when battling the Doctor).

    I think that both Wiener and Licklider (or “Lick,” as I’ve discovered he was known to acquaintances) would be Dr. Who fans.  The show portrays both good and bad uses of technology–technology used to its potential, and technology abused past its potential.  Lick seems to see the almost unbridled potential of technology, emphasizing how it can “amplify” human intelligence.  The Doctor would agree with this–he’s no Luddite!  The Doctor’s time machine–the Tardis–provides a perfect example of this (as does his sonic screwdriver, etc.).  When technology is developed and used “properly,” it like the Tardis, can break down barriers (such as language) that prevent humans from reaching their potential.

    But, like Wiener, Dr. Who (the show) highlights “the use of human power for other purposes than the greater glory of God” (p. 72).  Wiener’s invocation of the monkey’s paw and the genie in the bottle are scary references–much like the Cybermen, or the Daleks (the Doctor’s other arch nemesis).  Wiener and Vannevar Bush both fear the potential (probable) use of technology for anything other than helping the human race meet its potential for good and growth.  However, neither offers much in terms of knowing when we’re crossing that line into those “other” purposes.  So, thinking about Bush, Weiner, Lick, and the Doctor, I suppose that’s my ultimate question:  at what point does intelligence amplification become, in a word, evil?  As  Jill noted, Wiener’s awareness of this potential of technology seems mainly influenced by his  hindsight (guilt).  But again, I think he only came to these conclusions because of his experience.

    So, those of us tinkering with technologies without similar (personal) experiences may be having the difficulty that Licklider referenced when he wrote that “many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance” (p. 75). None of this provides an answer, or even a question (as Poincare might point out, p. 75), but it does bring to mind Melvin Kranzberg and his first law of technology:  Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.



  • Privileged Nibblers and the Economics of Information

    Posted on September 21st, 2011 Rebecca No comments

    [Sidenote:  this post references Bush’s essay “As We May Think,” and is part of the Awakening the Digital Imagination Seminar]

    As a librarian and technology enthusiast, I have been acquainted with Vannevar Bush for quite some time.  And I still have some problems with his vision, particularly in this essay.

    I understand that here, Bush imagines a world without technical restrictions; even more, Bush goes so far as to imagine a world where man overcomes “human” restrictions and learns to wield information (and all that comes with it) for his “true good” (47).  But I think there’s an element of this discussion that needs to be addressed:  the economics of information.  Bush would be the first to acknowledge the value of information–he might even place a higher dollar amount on it than today’s journal vendors or research universities have.  However, his vision of the memex and the “modern great library” assumes access–equal access–to information (40).

    Let’s start with the “modern great library.”  Bush writes that it can, at most, be “nibbled by few” (40).  I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, but not for the reasons that Bush gives.  The modern great library is only accessible to the privileged few who may or may not choose to nibble at it.  Many modern technologies–citation mapping, RSS, Evernote, and electronic journals–come close to meeting Bush’s vision for the memex and its power of creating unique, individualized associations among pieces of information.  But the other part of his vision–access to information that we make, store, and consult–is simply not possible in the world we live in.  Is it?

    Open access publishing models provide a partial answer to this idea of equal access to information.  When Bush writes about Mendel’s breakthroughs being lost to a generation because it did not (could not?) reach a ready audience, I think about all the valuable information published in Nature or Science that many researchers around the world (yes, even in the U.S.) may not have access to because of poor library funding or systems that don’t support information access.  Bush writes about the memex user “purchasing” microfilm  that would include books, pictures, newspapers, etc. for use on his memex (45). Who is doing the purchasing, and who controls access to the information?  What sort of regulations standardize or create access/barriers for the information? Where do libraries come into this increasingly individualized picture?  These are questions Bush doesn’t even think about answering.

    Even if all publishers decided to use an open access model (ha!), that would still leave the issue of a digital divide.  How many regions of this country, and the world, still don’t have access to modern computers or even internet access?  Does Bush envision the memex only for the use of the privileged few?  If so, how does that possibly help the entire human race realize their potential?

    Don’t get me wrong:  Bush’s vision for using science to reach man’s potential is awesome.  It just highlighted, for me, some of the real problems that severely limit the way our society can engage with and utilize both technology and information.

  • An introduction

    Posted on September 20th, 2011 Rebecca No comments

    Although I created this blog specifically for Awakening the Digital Imagination, a “networked faculty-staff development seminar,” I have had the idea for this blog for some time.  I already maintain several different blogs and microblogs to communicate with various groups of people:  the department that I serve as a College Librarian at Virginia Tech (http://hnfelibrarian.blogspot.com/), my colleagues at Virginia Tech Libraries http://pd-vtl.blogspot.com/), other information literacy professionals (http://informationlitany.tumblr.com/), and the world in general (http://twitter.com/#!/rebeccakmiller), I haven’t really had a place to brainstorm “out loud.”  That’s what I intend to do with this blog–first through the readings and discussion that take place through the seminar, but then perhaps more broadly.

    A bit on the name of the blog:  as you can see from the tumblr site I linked to above, I claimed the title “information litany” awhile ago.  There are a few different meanings behind this title; first of all, it sounds a bit like “information literacy” which is one of my main concerns, and research areas, as an academic librarian.  A lot of what I post about for the seminar (and beyond) will relate to and expound upon the concept of information literacy, so I won’t define it here–I’ll point to the Wikipedia page for that!

    The word “litany,” though, has more meaning for me than just sounding like “literacy.”  It has several different connotations–(1) an invocation or prayer, or (2) a meaningless, (tedious) repetitive chant or list.  In my opinion and experience, librarians (and other teachers/thinkers/professionals that deal with the same issues) vacillate between these two different interpretations in their everyday work.  Many of us believe that our work in organizing, disseminating, and helping others find information is sacred, but our goals, beliefs, and hopes often start to sound tedious and repetitive when we try to explain or defend ourselves to other people, groups, or even students.  The mission of this blog is to walk that middle ground, taking the sacred and philosophical, and applying it in everyday situations or discussions.

    A final thought:  in church services, litanies often have a call-and-response.  Although these responses are scripted, it still creates a nice metaphor for a blog.  Response is an integral part of the blogging experience, creating communities and facilitating interactivity among thinkers.  It is my hope that whatever is called out from the blog will generate thoughtful, curious, and helpful responses!