Privileged Nibblers and the Economics of Information

Sep
2011
21

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[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.

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