Too Big to Know by David Weinberger. Life has always been too big to know.

Too Big to KnowMy mother grew up in a little village in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Her family farm was near a canal where she skated with her friends. Today it is rare to have the freezing temperatures for hard ice. My mother says life was simpler in the past. I asked, did it feel that way at the time? She looked at me sharp in the eye. No, no it didn’t. She lived through the depression and Nazi occupation in World War II. It is an illusion that life is more complex today than in the past.

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger explains how the shape of knowledge has changed. In the past we had traditional knowledge and it was associated with print. Academics would follow a disciplined scholarly process of researching and writing papers and books, the source of classic facts. It seems a nice orderly process, but Weinberger knows this picture oversimplifies things. He attributes the oversimplification to print: “The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network” (40). Today knowledge is not book-shaped but network-shaped like the web. No longer written by a single expert on one particular subject toward a fixed conclusion, knowledge is more an interactive dialogue of people weaving different subjects together with changeable outcomes.

It is a good thing that our information technology has adapted to better handle the messiness of thought. “To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground” (100). Still, messiness is not itself a virtue. If print makes knowledge seem too tidy, that is also its strength. Chaos is tamed by filtering out distractions and crackpots, fixing reference points to allow for evaluation, distilling knowledge from data, allowing for a period of consensus and informed actions.

Life has always been too big to know. I have written elsewhere how the Dutch immigration shaped a people of the book. Reading the bible provided a focus and refuge amidst the uncertainty and hardships of starting a new life in a strange land. Digital information technologies extend our abilities with the true messiness of life, but networks are still leaky buckets. The fixity of print remains the gold standard for knowledge.

Double Fold by Nicholson Baker. A new technology should be better than the old one.

Double foldRemember the microfiche machines in libraries during the 80’s? As high school students, we were told to use them as part of research assignments. The machines were futuristic … in a 60’s way. A mammoth black box, with a lamp projecting black and white text and images from plastic cards onto a screen. A fan blew off the considerable heat it generated. Maybe you can still find one of these behemoths tucked away in the corner of your library. I don’t use them. I still use books.

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper was published by Nicholson Baker in 2001. He reported his indepth research into librarians’ mass destruction of books and newspapers scanned to microfiche. If microfiche is antiquated now, Baker’s observations are still valuable lessons for our our present day e-book revolution.

A crisis will be invented to fund technological change

There are always those who resist change. Baker was not among them. He endorsed scanning to microfiche if the original print materials were not destroyed. There’s the rub. It takes money to buy and use the new technology, and money is always tight in libraries. The budget of the old technology, print, is a tempting target. A switch in budget requires justification, a problem with the old technology to be solved by the new.

A 1987 film, “Slow Fires”, by Terry Sanders, was used as evidence of the acid decay that was causing print books and newspapers to become brittle. A “double fold” test was performed by machine, working a strip of paper back and forth by 90 degrees, subjecting it to the force of one kilogram. The test was used to classify the durability of books and make predictions about their life expectancy. Baker’s research found little science in this method. Carefully preserved, many such works last much longer. Furthermore, microfiche also degrades with sunlight or improper care. The double fold test was pseudo-science, invented to legitimize the conversion from print to microfiche.

In the present day we hear many dubious claims about e-books. One popular claim is that e-books are greener than print books. In fact, e-books exist only on the backs of the environmentally costly externalities of digital technology: power generation, product manufacturing, and toxic waste in landfills. It is another spurious claim, a marketing strategy used to drive technological change.

Readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology

My memory of microfiche is grainy black and white text and images, difficult to read and view. The scanning process took hand-drawn images and illustrations, colored photos, and textured documents and reduced them to degraded black and white film. It seems too obvious to say, books exist for reading. Did the scanners eat their own dog food? As absurd as it sounds, readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology. Today’s e-books enhance readability in some ways, e.g., changeable font-size, while remaining limited in other ways. E-ink still only presents text and images in black and white, though apparently coloured e-ink is on the way. Tablet devices have monitors with colour but are backlit, causing eye strain. Ad placement in e-readers is making rapid ground, intended for no other purpose than to distract potential buyers from reading.

Print books are by no means a perfect technology. They take up a lot of space, are often heavy to transport, slow to search, and hard to remix. Digital technology can help with these things. Any conversion entails loss. The important question is whether the overall gains outweigh the losses. Weirdly, we often jump to the new technology if it is merely close in quality to the old. I will restate the question as an axiom: a new technology should be better than the old one. If the technologies serve different needs better, then like Baker I have no objection to the new technology if it does not entail destruction of the old. Ask yourself, given the accelerating demand for e-books in libraries, how long will librarians keeping purchasing both formats? On a broader scale, given current market trends, how long do you think both print and e-books will be continue to be published?

Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark: Technology makes us smarter, it does not make me smarter.

Natural-Born CyborgsSay the word, “cyborg” and people imagine the fictional Borg from Star Trek, humans implanted with technology, penetrating their skulls to enhance their brains. Frightening. We consider it perfectly acceptable, however, to extend our intelligence and abilities by using technology outside our bodies, everything from speech to pen and paper to computers. Is there a difference? Andy Clark, author of Natural-Born Cyborgs does not think so. “We are, in short, in the grip of a seductive but quite untenable illusion: the illusion that the mechanisms of mind and self can ultimately unfold only on some privileged stage marked out by the good old-fashioned skin-bag. My goal is to dispel this illusion, and to show how a complex matrix of brain, body, and technology can actually constitute the problem-solving machine that we should properly identify as ourselves.” I find myself in agreement with many of Clark’s ideas, except finally for the vital role of personal control in critical reflection.

Clark knows his Heidegger — humans are technological to the core. We readily project feeling and sensation beyond the shell, e.g., the cane of a blind person. In a neat demonstration of visual memory, he shows how we only store outlines and make errors when pressed for details. We store metadata but interpolate baseline data. It demonstrates our dependence on external storage devices. We are born to do this, argues Clark. Our brains are plastic, adjusting to our tools. As our tools become more intelligent, we are able to make more intelligent tools, bootstrap style. He foresees a future of ubiquitous invisible computing, allowing us to pluck answers on demand from the ether. Published in 2003, his vision seems close at hand. Be careful. When learning a pattern, outlined from A to Z, it may be efficient to offload Q and R, but this is not the same as only storing A, hoping to retrieve the rest later on. Our brains still have to do the hard work of learning the patterns. An entry in Wikipedia on nuclear physics does not qualify a person to teach it.

Phantom pain shows that the body is a transitory construct. If mind does not stop at the skin, what exactly is a self? I agree with Clark’s alignment of self with our narrative, our story, projects and intentions. If we wear special goggles and gloves that allow us to see and operate mechanical arms elsewhere, our sense of self is carried along. It is not that there is no self, but instead a “soft self”. In Clark’s view, it renders us “good to go”. He predicts “new waves of almost invisible, user-sensitive, semi-intelligent, knowledge-based electronics and software … perfectly posed to merge seamlessly with individual biological brains.” I could not help but compare Clark’s soft self with the Buddhist teaching that there is no essential self. I have difficulty imagining, however, that the Buddhists with their “be here now” philosophy would share his vision. Technological augmentation would just compound the illusion of self.

Clark says there is no difference between knowing the time in your head and being able to retrieve it quickly from a watch. There is a difference with regard to personal control, but it is less obvious with a watch than, say, a sandwich board where the information is entirely public. Technology externalizes our minds, making us smarter, not making me smarter. It may be efficient to offload some of our thinking to technology, but it also takes away the personal perspective needed to observe and evaluate it, and the personal ability to choose against it. If technology is going to do more thinking for us, it will become more difficult to critically evaluate it. Clark prefers transparent or invisible technologies, ones that are always on and do not make the user think. He contrasts these with tangible technologies with a noticeable edge, an off button. Perhaps all technologies should be scheduled for occasional shutdown and evaluation.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Human relations trump the thrills of technology.

Close to the machineTen years ago I took my first real job as a computer programmer. Perhaps three weeks later I picked up a book, The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski. Title notwithstanding, it is not a very philosophical book. Today I work as an IT Architect for a multinational IT corporation. There is still something that draws me toward technology, just as there is still discontent which I seek to understand. In 2002, I read a better book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Written in 1997, it is a better book because Ullman tells a personal story of her seduction to technology, the swoon of power, the impact on her relationships, and her eventual disillusionment.

Computers offer a cool alternate reality. Programming takes one into a transcendental zone like mathematics, where reality is symbolic and gritty human particulars don’t matter. Programmers are seduced by complete creative control of their little worlds. Others admire and reward their activity. Occupying this virtual reality is not just tempting but probable since software systems require constant attention. A system is never finished.

When I first started programming, I worried that it was putting people out of jobs. I was wrong. It changes their jobs. It is equally worrisome. Everyone winds up making concessions to the bugs and the system. Soon it becomes tautological — a new bigger system is required. The logic of the system is self-sustaining, sucking everyone in, changing them to suit its needs. “Our accommodations begin simply with small workarounds, just to avoid the bugs: ‘We just don’t put in those dates!'” (90).” We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel” (90).

It is in Ullman’s account of users that I know she gets my angst. “The world as humans understand it and the world as it must be explained to computers come together in the programmer in a strange state of disjunction” (21). Every twist a user’s mind might invent must be anticipated. Other kinds of design, e.g., elevator design, must also anticipate user actions, but not for the purpose of replacing human thought. People want software so they don’t have to think through data processing tasks. The coder is building technology to replace human thought, and with little to no room for uncertainty. Where a user might generalize a concept or fudge the numbers, the code is exacting and demands precise resolution. Design analysis forces users to understand their thinking, perhaps for the first time. It is a painstaking process. Most often, the design documents blur over the difficult ideas, and it is finally up to the programmer to resolve human thought.

Computer programming in a standard business application context has about five years of juice in it. There are many interesting nuances, but in the end it just comes down to data and rules for processing it. The technology keeps getting repackaged in new forms, and it is not a trivial matter to keep up with it. “It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears — the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism — there was no reason to think I could escape it forever” (95). The fact that I cannot write code forever brings a smile to my face. To stay in the business one has to find new juice: the intellectual challenge of the problems, the intimacy of analyzing thought, the desire to make life genuinely better for others. As always, human relations trump the thrills of technology.

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford. The separation of thinking and doing is an artificial and harmful practice.

Shop class as soulcraftI suspect that Matt Crawford’s publisher came up with the title of his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The title attracted and repelled me for a year before I read this book. The now largely defunct shop class was still around when I went to high school in the eighties. I learned a measure of competence in handling materials and their machines that has proved useful and satisfying over the years. This connection piqued my interest, but “soulcraft” had the distinct ring of marketing. The subtitle was even more difficult, a clear pitch to fans of Pirsig’s famous novel, a book I have read once per decade for the last thirty years. I would not lightly judge a poser. Fortunately, Crawford speaks with his own voice on a timely issue, the role of the trades and right livelihood in the information age.

Too many children are being hustled off to university in pursuit of so-called knowledge work. Trained in electrical work and vehicle maintenance as a youth, Crawford pursued a doctorate in philosophy. On the way he took a job that seemed ideally suited to him, writing abstracts of journal articles for a database, only to find the quota impossibly high for comprehension. After obtaining his PhD he was hired by a think tank and paid very well, only the results of their “thinking” were predetermined by the oil company that funded it. He left the academic world to open a motorcycle shop. To hell with economics and opportunity cost. He preferred the cognitive challenges of the trades. Historically, scientific thinking came from a close handling of materials by bright workers. Crawford explains how the separation of thinking and doing is an artificial and harmful practice that started with industrialization and advanced by Taylor at Harvard.

Crawford asserts that the separation of thinking and doing is now being applied to office work. In my dozen years of work in corporate IT, I personally find there are some satisfactions of the manual kind that Crawford thinks are reserved for the trades. Like the craftsman, I take pride in writing code that I know will never be appreciated by anyone except perhaps another developer. I get excited when the switch is about to be flipped on for a major program I wrote. Still, it is true that the only tactile experience I get is that of the keyboard. Worse, as programs begin to write programs, lower level coders are being phased out in favour of higher level configurators who have little real control over their products. This shift eliminates the need to master technical skills. Computers are becoming the assembly lines of thought sausages.

The problem is not technology. Crawford knows his Heidegger. We are technological beings, handy to the core. We need to feel our tools in our hands, not manage them remotely or regard them abstractly. There is a big difference between the explicit and universal nature of Ohm’s law, compared to the tacit and situational knowledge of the mechanic that electrical circuits must be tight, dry and clean. He is not being anti-intellectual, but attesting to the satisfaction and cognitive challenges of the trades. It is good advice even from an economic viewpoint. In the face of global outsourcing, one still cannot hammer a nail over the Internet.

The book is dedicated to his girls, which is nice, but the sexism in Crawford’s writing is glaring. The text is masculine in almost all of its pronouns. References to firefighters and chess players are stereotypical, while the one “she” plays music. Sexist jibes are considered appropriate training for young men. According to Crawford, classrooms can only contain boys prone to action by the use of psychiatric drugs, and corporate teamwork is for girls. Call me politically correct if you must, but the sexism is too much. We should have learned by now to welcome girls into the trades rather than scare them off with this tiresome prejudice.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, preventing a growth of intelligence.

The ShallowsThe debate over technology and books has reached new heights this year. Amazon just announced that e-books have overtaken hardback sales. At the same time, there has been an intensification of debate about the effects of online reading on our brains. At the center of this debate is Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Do your kids still do memory work at school? Have you wondered if memorization matters much now that we can access information online anytime? Carr clearly shows that it does. When we read, information is placed in working memory and requires time before it consolidates in long term memory. The process requires the synthesis of new proteins for anatomical changes in the brain. Complex memories require concerted action across the brain. Any distraction can interrupt this process and the internet is a distraction machine. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain or to draw connections with the information already stored in long-term memory” (125). Human memory is gradient, organic, alive. It gains in richness with each remembering. Only in our heads can we form the complex neural connections linking new information to our previous ones, giving them context and meaning. Biological memory is a completely different thing than computer memory. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, thus preventing a growth of intelligence.

That technology changes our brain is not a new idea. Everything changes our brain. The topic of brain plasticity is also popular this year, following research showing that our brains never stop learning. As Carr observes, it is good news for the brain injured in rehabilitation but it also means that our good mental habits cannot be taken for granted. Neglected pathways get pruned away. MRI studies demonstrate that online readers uses different mental pathways. While book readers are active in areas associated with language, memory and visual processing, online readers are engaging the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. The high distractability of the web means online readers must constantly make choices between different reading paths, reverting to being decoders of information, not deep readers. If we don’t use the skills we will lose them. Citing McLuhan, our tools numb the part of the body they amplify, in this case, the brain. Online reading has its virtues but intelligence requires complementary deep reading, best facilitated by reading books.

The call to literacy may not appeal to millennials. In my book, Slow Reading, I touched on my Gen-X experience that Carr calls a two-act play. Our Analogue Youth was a time when memory work was still a required educational practice. I was compelled to repeat a poem again and again to extreme boredom, discovering only then how I was truly becoming the poem, ultimately winning first prize for my recitation in a regional contest. Like the Baby Boomers, we fully share a memory of the time when print was still the dominant information technology. The second act is our Digital Adulthood. Unlike the Boomers, we were mere teenagers when computers went mainstream. Like the millennials we grew up learning digital technology. Gen-X’ers may be uniquely called upon to make the bridge to literacy for millennials.

Any book that starts with McLuhan and ends quoting Heidegger has my interest. The book extends the question Carr asked in his 2008 article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” I share Carr’s feeling. It is palpable, but I have not been able to put my finger on it till now. In The Shallows, Carr nails it. The richness of my memories has diminished, and “I miss my old brain” (16). As books continue to change along with the web, we need the solid research and analysis that Carr provides on literacy and deep reading.

The Case for Books by Robert Darnton. Uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age.

The case for booksRobert Darnton was the Director of the Harvard University Library during two important events, the Google Book Search project and the university’s open access movement. In The Case for Books, Darnton provides a perspective on the interplay of private and public interests in libraries.

Google Books involves the digitization of public domain and out-of-print books to form the world’s largest digital library. This project entails scanning the works of research libraries, and Harvard was an initial partner. Darton approves of making books more accessible through digitization, but he is concerned that the libraries who provided these books will have to pay to access them. How high will these costs get? Google is a private enterprise and has an effective monopoly on digital books. Good intentions or not, the profit motive inevitably puts the squeeze on public interests.

The profit motive can also help define the essential niche of libraries. The public library first emerged as a response to the exclusive access of royals to library collections. Darnton predicts that Google Books will make libraries more important than ever. Google will not digitize everything. Copyright still protects new books. Being profit-minded, Google will focus on the 80% of mainstream interest books, not the special collections of research libraries. Scanning causes errors; 99% accuracy is still two or three letters wrong in the average book length paragraph. Version control may be an increasingly important role for research libraries.

In his position at Harvard, Darnton defended a motion in favour of the open access movement. Open access makes scholarly articles available free of charge on the web. It addresses the contradiction of being charged exorbitant rates for freely generated content, crippling libraries and scholarship. As I see it, this long-term interplay of private and public interests may not be an unhealthy one. Private companies tend to lead with innovation, making digital journals available in the first place. I am not sure libraries would have accomplished this feat on their own. Sooner or later, private interests confuse profit as tactic with profit as strategy. It threatens the ability of libraries to provide their service. Open information is the solution. It is a repeating pattern. First there was the open source operating system. Open access to academic journals is another instance. More recently in libraries, we have seen the emergence of the open source ILS to redress gouging by vendors over the years. Open information is a promising pattern.

Darnton uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age. He has creative ideas about the evolution of the ebook, but still prefers the usability of the print book. According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, more new titles are appearing every year. Soon a million will be published annually. Will digitization ever be able to keep up? It is worth remembering that digits are also a physical resource, with concomitant scarcity. Compound that with the scarcities imposed by copyright and the private interests, we can be sure of the ongoing need for libraries to provide public access to books.

Information Ecologies by Nardi and O’Day. The keystone species of the library is the librarian.

Information EcologiesInformation Ecologies is the antidote to polarized thinking and propaganda about technology. Nardi and O’Day reject both the rhetoric of inevitability about technology, as well as mindless resistance to it. They take a larger view, observing that questions and concerns about technology have a long history. The key lesson is that a technology may make sense in one context, and not in another.

The authors compare metaphors of technology. When we look at technology as a tool, we evaluate it by its affordances, its capacity to control things. The metaphor of system tends to get us caught up in questions of efficiency. Technology has sometimes been treated as text, a carrier of meaning. Each perspective offers some insight, and the metaphor of an information ecology offers another, potentially broader metaphor, using both complexity and locality to evaluate technology.

They challenge questionable assumptions about technology. One, technology is not neutral; once we introduce a technology it becomes an end to serve. Two, people are not completely in control of their technology; it has unexpected social costs. Three, most of us do not understand our technology, so it tends to have an agenda of its own. The metaphor of an information ecology prompts us to be sensitive to local complexity, and choose what fits there.

A library is a clear example of an information ecology. A library involves many systems; a changes to one part affects other parts. A library tends to be diverse, offering niches of service that evolve depending on patron needs. A library has keystone species, without which the ecology would collapse. They suggest the keystone species is librarians. Agreed. As I see it, another keystone species is print books. Take those away, and what is left? A server room? A computer lab? A community centre? A video store?

This book provides a much needed theoretical framework for understanding the complexities of technology. It is a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended.

Read Chapter 4 of the book at First Monday

Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham. A need to bend, break or invent patterns.

Hackers & paintersPeople come to programming with many different, sometimes overlapping motivations. Some like the mathematical dimension, the beauty of elegant algorithms. Many like the satisfaction of solving a problem. Others think it good money with career prospects. In Hackers & Painters, Graham frames a view on those who like the hands-on art of programming, the same ones drawn to writing, painting and other arts. Programming may seem a pale cousin of the arts, compared to writing or painting, but there is an art to it. Graham calls these sorts hackers, for their need to bend, break or invent patterns in pursuit of their art.

In the popular press, hacking is associated with breaking into computers or creating viruses that damage them. “To the programmer, ‘hacker’ connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants — whether the computer wants to or not” (50). Novice programmers perceive languages to be quite different, while those with a little more experience claim they are all the same. But the hackers, the masters, are sensitive to the variations in their tools, and how they shape the work. Graham favours Lisp as his sketching language. I dabbled in Lisp years ago; I am persuaded to take another look.

I have psychology and library science degrees, not computer science. What I know about programming and computers I picked up on the fly. Turns out that many people come to programming accidentally. Good programming is not really science, says Graham. Hacking is doing, like art. Those who can do it often find themselves making some sort of living at it simply because of economics; it is much harder to make a living at painting. These people often do not fit comfortably in the corporate mold, but rather in small startups, where the lean environment and rewards for hard work are better suited to innovation.

Graham paints an invigorating portrait of hackers, though some of his notions completely missed my boat. Like many books on computers, some ideas already seem quaint, such as his discussions of ASPs and langauge issues around typing and garbage collection. Other ideas border on facile, such as his view that generating wealth in the modern world is all good because it is a function of hard work. No corruption in the modern world? He also believes that information technology decreases the gap between the rich and the poor. By its very nature, technology tends toward to centralized control by a small group. In any case, the book does have many good ideas, and I suppose hackers are likely to make as many mistakes as worthy breakthroughs.