Cultural Accumulation and Modern Reading

Ismail Serageldin   في الثلاثاء 11 مارس 2008

We live in the age of the internet. The digital age, where the traditional boundaries between voice, text, image and data have blurred and are on the verge of disappearing. The traditional view of writing as the supreme means of communication has already for a century been gradually displaced by the role of the image in transferring knowledge and interconnecting generations… But that does not mean that the word will be abolished or that the book will disappear. Rather, our children will have many more options to choose from and an infinitely richer cultural environment to live in.

Indeed we can see this today: Television is very pervasive, mobile telephony is ubiquitous and never have more people been connected to the new media. The internet is everywhere, and youth seem particularly adept at navigating the new fads and fashions, even creating entire new worlds in virtual reality in the realm of cyberspace. But never before in the history of humanity have we had as many print newspapers, magazines and books as we have today. And that is true in terms of titles or of individual copies. So the two trends – electronic, wireless digital data and old-fashioned print media – can grow hand in hand as it were.

But the explosion of technology that we have witnessed in the last century is nothing compared to the explosion that is about to come in this new century. This is truly the third global revolution that we are living through. I believe that the new information age is transformative on the scale of the two global revolutions of humanity: the agricultural revolution that allowed the emergence of civilizations and the industrial revolution that changed the relationship of worker to product and brought about a major explosion of goods and services. The new information and communication revolution will also bring about real qualitative changes.

In addition, ICT technology is now moving from computer-centric to communication-centric platforms (mobile phones and PDAs) which are much more user friendly. With substantial expansion of broadband wireless, the poor can move to communications-centric platforms immediately. That is significant because massive connectivity is here: There are billions of Mobile phones in the world, with over 400 million in China alone. They can access the Internet, with its enormous positive impacts, despite the variable quality of the information it provides. And storage: is becoming easier and cheaper. Technology makes information more portable, more searchable and more accessible. Imagine, one Ipod can store millions of scientific articles. All in all, the density and accessibility of information is increasing dramatically.

Scenarios for the future:

But how will we interact with all this material? Will be living in a fast-paced world of disposable cultural artifacts, jumping from one fashion to the next, dropping hula hoops and pet rocks for Rubik’s cubes and video games? Or will we still be able to relate to the more profound aspects our cultural heritage and build on the cultural accumulation that created this legacy?

I see before us two scenarios:

In one instance, we become nations of dilettantes, with short attention spans and superficial acquaintance with a lot of things. Consumers of technology as well as of goods and services, people who, thanks to the internet, know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Education has been confused with entertainment in the ever-intensifying search for means to capture the fickle attention span of youngsters.

In that scenario, the libraries and museums of the world are abandoned “antiques” of a bygone era, as people would rather sit in their homes and see the cyber-image (no-doubt in virtual reality) of an object or artifact, rather than see the real thing in a museum or evening its country of origin, and books are there for those who wish to actually plow through all the words rather than just “see the film version” or enjoy an abstract on line.

But I do not believe that scenario. I believe in another scenario:

The enormous resources of the revolution in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) will be mobilized to make available to future generations the most easily accessible and broadest coverage of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. It will be a select part of the vast array of information available to all. The new resources will be mediated by the libraries and museums and other institutions of cultural conservation and expression.

Contrary to the general view that the internet based future of ICT-driven wonders will see the end of the book as we know it, and that there will be no libraries in the future, I believe that libraries and museums in the future will remain as essential mediators of the accumulated cultural heritage of humanity. They will enable new generations to “read” it, although the act of reading will be somewhat different than it is today.

New ways of presenting material, new ways of reading:

This enormous richness of material will require different ways of organization and presentation and will match new ways of reading that will have developed in the population. We already see some of the early examples of these transformations.

For example, we increasingly present information differently. We do not write long treatises. We write a home page and hyperlink words that each lead to other pages and other materials. Publishing materials increasingly combines picture, sound and movement in addition to text and data.

Also, the way we prepare material has changed. Wikipedia showed how thousands of people from all over the world could collaborate to produce an enormous collective work that would have been impossible without the new ICT technology. Likewise, a lot of individuals can now publish directly on the net without the mediation of traditional publishers or producers by posting directly to the web. The success of such sites as Utube and facebook are early precursors of an important trend.

Finally, the new search engines from Alta-Vista to Google have shown how the vast amounts of information on the net could be indexed and retrieved in ways that can be incredibly efficient.

But the Internet is like the street. Anyone can put anything in the web. Only an expert can tell the difference between good quality information and bad. And with the enormous increase in information that is being added every day, the need for means to mediate the organization of this vast information into a usable structure becomes acute. It is here that the libraries of the future come in.

Already a century ago a poet remarked

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Falls from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric...

--Edna St. Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry

We devoted ourselves to building that loom. Libraries will continue to build that loom in the new century using the new technologies just as fast as the new technologies are becoming available. For in the end, it is our vocation. How to sift and organize data so that it becomes information, how to link and interpret it so that we gain knowledge, which hopefully, when refined in the crucible of experience, with insight and reflection, may lead us to wisdom. The wisdom to create that better world to which we are all committed.

Remembering the poor:

So far, we have been talking about the high-end of users on this planet. We have not addressed how the new technologies will be able to reach the poorer parts of the world. And reach they will, as the inexorable march of technology and economic development make their way. Within and between societies these technologies will tend to favor the rich, the powerful, the educated and the nimble. Thus they have the potential to aggravate the digital divide and increase the gap between the rich and the poor.

But the new technologies also hold the potential to enable the poorer people in the south to “leapfrog” the development patterns experienced in the north. While it is not a silver bullet, connecting all the schools is both desirable and feasible. Although it would not replace conventional schooling, it would revolutionize the possibilities available to both teachers and students. Thoughtfully deployed, the new technologies can strengthen deprived communities and empower the poor. For example, Vietnam is using digital libraries for rural development. These become hubs of villages turning them into knowledge communities, each having a multimedia computer, printers, camera and 200 digitized movie titles.

But the costs of the hardware and of proprietary software to the south are enormous. Brazil was spending more on licensing proprietary software than it does on fighting hunger, so now it is moving to open source systems. That raises the questions of standards and interoperability.

Standards and Interoperability:

The full impact of the ICT revolution will not be fully realized until inter-operability is achieved. Consider, for example, the goal of “50 by 15” to connect 50% of the world by 2015.

This kind of goal cannot be achieved without setting standards that will ensure interoperability.

Standards drive down barrier to entry, and more entrants means better products. Many would prefer open industry standards rather than proprietary solutions. However, even proprietary systems have seeded the landscape with competitors and innovators.

Who sets the standards? Those who have that power often abuse it for national or commercial reasons, at the expense of the consumer, the user.

These are complex issues, but central to our theme. I believe that even if standards should be market driven, governments have to provide frameworks for anti-trust and for public goods. Standards should also avoid the stultifying effect of blocking new technologies. What if there is a new and better music compression technology than MP3 ?

Future Libraries and the management of our heritage:

The digital libraries of tomorrow have the potential of archiving an enormous amount of data. Not only will books be available in digital formats, but films, images, video, music and much more. We have a dual responsibility to record and protect our heritage, including the folklore and traditional customs and oral traditions, and to make it available to all.

This will not be the work of one institution. Collaboration and exchange is essential, but will it be on open source formats? How will we deal with technical and physical obsolescence of the material and the formats? Will we keep rerecording this enormous material every few years?

Information and ideas are central for the development of humanity. But there are intermediaries between authors and readers: Libraries have a central role to play. Large digital collections of text, images, voice, music and video open amazing possibilities. Hypertext links, even fluid hyperwords, object repositories, and new search engines and gateways that add coherence and credibility. We can find origins, or do associative semantic searching, all unthinkable in the non-digital world.

Specialized collections can add enormous impact. The Brazil-Chile-Argentina initiative of digitizing their journals made available specialized literature on health and agriculture.

In short, the library of the future will not just digitize the old books and articles. It will give birth to the new, so much of which resides in the links between the old knowledge. It will give a home to materials that are born digital! The library of the future will truly be the place to find the lasting and the lost.

It will keep pace with the public. The form of consultation and reading will be different, but the book will remain as well as the new electronic media. Some things will be consulted in one way, others in other ways. Skeptics who believe in the imminent demise of the book should be reminded as to how ICT was to produce the paperless office. Today we use more paper with more technology than ever before.

Finally: A call for new thinking:

More useable real-time data than ever before is now available to the average person, and this is going to increase in both quantity and quality. For example Google earth, is soon going to come to 30 cm resolution. Can we bring into the public domain information and data that can be used for public purpose, but respecting the privacy of individuals? Help establish baselines for understanding our enormously complex societies?

To tackle these questions we will need new ways of thinking, trans-disciplinary research, and a great deal of imagination. Thinking of the multiplicative effect of the new technologies and how they impact on the environment, and how the very nature of human interaction in our societies will change remains a daunting and very exciting challenge.

New ways of thinking will help us ensure that the emerging world of the knowledge based society and the technology driven economy, will open avenues for talented people everywhere to harness the new knowledge to improve their well-being in a sustainable fashion.

We need a world where the values of science are celebrated: free inquiry, free speech and a healthy skepticism, all coupled with a sense of wonder, a respect for truth and an ability to reason.

A world where fairness and cooperation are promoted, innovators are rewarded and society benefits from their innovations as it celebrates diversity and pluralism.

A world where access to knowledge is a fundamental right and the sharing of knowledge is a fundamental duty.

It can be done, it must be done, and it will be done.

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