Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 4: May 2012

The Middle


It’s time for another roundup of forecasts, trends and other bits of futurism, including some related to libraries. (I’ve excluded items that relate primarily to the future of ebooks.)

The original title here was “Futurism and Forecasts” but there’s too much source material for one essay (given that there are other essays in this issue). So this half is futurism and specific longer-term predictions; the second half (probably in the next issue) will be Forecasts—specific short-term forecasts that can be checked and judged.

Future Past

Let’s kick things off with a trio of items about old futurism, always an amusing topic.

How 1983 wasn’t like “1983”

That’s Steve Lawson’s title for this See Also… post from way back in September 2007, which somehow got mislaid. (Sorry, Steve.) Lawson notes a mention (in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages) of an 1883 essay by Charles Ammi Cutter offering Cutter’s vision of “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983.” (The link is to Lawson’s extraction of the essay from a larger Google Books scan of ALA Papers and Proceedings for 1883. Can you believe there was a time when ALA published proceedings for its conferences? Think about what a Proceedings for, say, the 2011 Annual Conference might look like…)

Lawson notes that the author of Glut finds it interesting that “Cutter foresaw electronic book requests for readers and a telegraph-style network that allowed libraries to share information.” Lawson then notes some of Cutter’s “blind spots and apparent enthusiasms that haven’t aged as well.” Here’s that set of bullets in full:

For example:

Cutter seems obsessed with circulation, not of books, but of air. “Ventilation was their hobby,” Cutter writes of his notional 20th-century librarians. “Nothing made the librarian come nearer scolding than any impurity in the air.”

I believe all librarians are referred to as “he” or “him.” But, then, this is Cutter writing, and not Dewey.

Reading fiction in “1983” is still looked down upon. The librarian of the future says “We have not yet escaped the preponderant use of fiction though we have diminished it since your day. It used to be 75 per cent. Thanks to our training the school children in good ways it has fallen to forty. I doubt if it gets much lower.”

I found his description of the photographic catalog system (pages 52-3 in the original pagination) completely incomprehensible.

In “1983” open stacks haven’t been invented yet. Readers enter the call number they want on a litle device in their desk and a boy runs and gets the book for them.

The library of “1983” is open every day, and kept open as late as anyone wants to stay.

Gender segregation still goes strong in “1983” with separate service desks for men, women, and children.

Cutter’s librarian of the future uses the term “great unwashed” unironically: “Every one must be admitted into the delivery-room, but from the reading-rooms the great unwashed are shut out altogether or put in rooms by themselves. Luckily public opinion sustains us thoroughly in their exclusion or seclusion.”

In short, the library of “1983” is suspiciously like a librarian’s ideal of a library in 1883, plus some electric lights and a telegraph.

I can’t resist quoting Lawson’s final paragraph:

I’d love to read my own blog and others like it with 125 years of hindsight. On second thought, I think I may be lucky to be spared that particular fate. I can hear them now: “Social software? I guess that is what people talked about before the singularity.”

I don’t have much to add. The article itself is fascinating. Apart from Dui-like spelling (only of certain words, mostly substituting “f” for “ph,”) I especially enjoyed the description of Buffalo’s large group of listening-rooms, 50 or more of them, where people gathered to hear the best books or stories read to them from foil fonografs. And, to be sure, the four million volumes of Buffalo’s remarkable library—which, as it turns out, isn’t that far off (as of 2009, the Buffalo & Erie County library had 2,069.856 books).

Mr. Edison’s Kindle

Harry McCracken used that title for a January 24, 2010 post at Technologizer. The subtitle: “Fifteen amazing gadgets that were way, way ahead of their time.” It’s an interesting read, based on perusing the Google Books archives of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and others. A key paragraph:

The brightest inventors on the planet keep coming up with ideas that never amount to much–even when they set out to solve real problems, and even when their brainchildren foreshadow later breakthroughs. And professional tech watchers have long proven themselves prone to getting irrationally exuberant about stuff that just isn’t ready for prime time.

Here are some of the fifteen with brief notes. The original article has longer notes and links to page images in Google Books:

·         Thomas Edison’s metal books (described in 1911): A vision of 40,000-page two-inch one-pound books printed on superthin sheets of nickel (which will take printer’s ink). The hype from Cosmopolitan at the time: “Here…is a prospect of real culture for the masses Forty thousand pages in a volume! A single volume the equivalent in printing space of two hundred paper-leaved books of two hundred pages each! What a library might be placed between two steel covers and sold for, perhaps, two dollars!” McCracken thinks ebook readers are “modern counterparts.” Well, maybe…but $2 in 1911 dollars is $46 in 2012, and you can’t buy either an ereader or anything close to 200 non-public-domain books for $46, much less both.

·         The “automobile wireless telephone” (described in 1913). In this case, the inventor had a working model—he made wireless calls over a distance of 35 miles from a phone in his car. There’s a wee bit of overhead in this early cellphone, to be sure—well, you need to see the picture. I wonder whether creating phones that work in cars was ever a good idea?

·         Telenewspaper and electric writer (described in 1938), in the study of the home of the future. One interesting thing is that this study had so many separate built-in display devices: a TV, a radio, a “telenewspaper” and an “electric writer.” How many built-in displays are in your “study” or living room?

·         Watch-case phonograph (1936), a tiny wind-up acoustic phonograph in a watch case. Using miniature records, of course, with a horn just big enough for a person’s ear. McCracken shows his bias in calling the modern counterpart the iPod, not MP3 players in general.

·         “Magic lantern talkies” (1937) allowing businesses to create color slideshows synchronized with audio tracks. Apparently businesses were expected to do full-fledged productions: A typical “lantern talk” was expected to cost around $25,000 (in 2010 dollars). Need we say PowerPoint?

·         Talking newspapers (1938): This one’s strange for the described enabling technology—not to read you the newspaper, say, over the phone, but to attach recordings of events to newspaper stories, printed as strips that you, the reader, got to cut-and-paste so they were playable. As McCracken notes, this was an even less convenient version of later failed attempts to encode information in periodicals—namely Cauzin Softstrips and the :CueCat. “I’m not sure why Popular Mechanics, which had already reported extensively on experimental TV broadcasts, thought that anyone would prefer to cut up the evening paper to get the news in words and pictures.”

·         Newspapers by radio (1939): Again, not somebody reading the news to you, but delivery through fax—already an old technology by 1939. Some newspapers tried this. One big problem: “It took fifteen minutes to broadcast one page of content.” I will refrain from snark about how long it takes TV or radio news to offer the equivalent of one full page of a broadside newspaper.

·         Colorfax (1947): This one’s wonderful—a $150 box (plugged into an FM radio) that created color documents by drawing them with colored mechanical pencils. (There eventually was a standard for color fax, but it never amounted to much.)

·         “Highway Hi-Fi” (1955): A traveling turntable (running at 16 2/3 rather than 33 1/3 rpm). Planned only for the auto, with no compatible home devices, so you’d have to buy your music twice. Chrysler actually tried this out, and in 1960 tried a 45rpm player. I think McCracken’s right in his “original” contemporary equivalent, the CD player, but he goes for an AUX port used with “iPod” (the other 30% of the portable player market does not exist, apparently). Yeah, but the CD player’s actually a spinning disc, much more comparable—except that there’s no physical contact to read it, which helps. (I still find it a bit miraculous that auto CD players work at all, much less on rough roads.)

·         “Punch-Card Picture Phone” (1961): A multiline videophone with document sharing features. The “punch card” part is apparently the user interface.

·         Microlibrary (1962): Basically ultrafiche and the idea, which came around from time to time, that we’d all own readers for these devices and use them instead of print books.

·         Neck-strap TV (1963): A portable Sony with a 4” screen. It did reach the market. It weighed six pounds and you wore it hanging from a neckstrap. Think about that. McCracken says “today’s FloTV” is the modern counterpart—and two years later, that link is broken. FloTV, which did exist for a while, is dead and buried.

·         “DIY Home TV Tape-Recorder Kit” (1963): A homebrew VCR. It wasn’t great: It recorded ten minutes on an 11” reel and sounded like a runaway lawnmower. But in this case realistic VCRs were only 12 years away.

·         Computer tutors, with elementary school students learning English and math through a very expensive mainframe-based system. East Palo Alto spent $1.5 million in mid-’60s dollars to educate 100 kids for one year. I hope it was grant money.

·         Home teletypewriters (1967): The interesting point here is that the Popular Science article dismissed the idea of home computers: connecting to mainframes was going to be too cheap for home PCs to make sense. Are we getting the same sales pitch again—this time called the cloud?

Interesting article, even if some of McCracken’s remarks are as annoying as some of mine probably are. One comment notes that the reason AT&T’s design for a “punch-card picture phone” was telephone-based was because it had to be, based on AT&T’s 1956 consent decree. They weren’t allowed to work in other fields. Some other interesting comments…including one pair where people are writing past each other. One says the pages of a “nickel book” would have to be 50 millionths of an inch thick (making them excellent razor blades); another responds that this is nonsense (“Fail” is his word), that each page would actually be 1/20,000th of an inch thick. Of course, if you divide 1,000 (the number of millionths in one-1000th) by 50 you get—oh, look, 20. “1/20,000th” and “50 millionths” are exactly the same thing. (Eventually, someone pointed that out.)

Historical views of the future

That’s Richard Watson on January 19, 2012 at What’s Next: Top Trends, discussing John Maynard Keynes’ view of life in 2030 in a 1930 essay—and a view of 2011 in a 1911 newspaper.

Keynes’ essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“ is certainly interesting. Keynes is determinedly optimistic in the face of recession.

[T]his is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.

He thinks it reasonable to assume that by 2030 we would, on average, be eight times better off in the economic sense than in 1930. (With the growing disparity between the ultrarich and everybody else, “on average” becomes more and more nonsensical, but never mind.) More to the point, he believes “the economic problem may be solved” by 2010—but with two key caveats: “assuming no important wars and no important increase in population.” He seems to be saying that, given those caveats, people won’t have pressing economic cares but will need to figure out “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” It’s certainly true that other futurists seemed to believe we’d have minimal workweeks and vast amounts of leisure time by now.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society

That’s only a sample—and it’s interesting to read, albeit a bit depressing.

The earlier one’s more fun—it’s an image from The Ladies’ Home Journal (a magazine, although buzzfeed calls it a newspaper), a piece entitled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years,” by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. The “may” immediately makes odd forecasts less humorous—and a few of them aren’t far off. Just a few of the predictions (without the details in the original):

·         The U.S. will have 350 to 500 million people (too high, but not by a lot)—and Nicaragua will ask to become a state, as will Mexico and “many of the South and Central American republics” (the latter to stave off European takeovers).

·         Americans will be an inch or two taller (probably about right)—and will live “fifty years instead of thirty-five” because we’ll all live in suburbs: “The city house will practically be no more” while trips from the suburbs to offices will only take a few minutes and cost a penny. I’m happy to say current life expectancy is a lot more than 50 years.

·         We’ll get rid of C, X and Q, go to spelling by sound and turn English into a “language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas.” English will be the most widely spoken language, followed by Russian.

·         You’ll get your heating and cooling by turning on spigots, supplying hot and cold air from central plants to city houses.

·         No mosquitoes, flies or roaches. All swamplands will be filled in for health reasons.

·         Precooked meals for sale at reasonable prices: Right. Delivered by pneumatic tubes: Wrong. “Having one’s own cook and purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance.” Half right.

·         “No foods will be exposed”—a greengrocer exposing food to “air breathed out by patrons or the atmosphere of the busy streets” would be arrested.

·         Coal on its way out (one can only hope)—but replaced with entirely hydroelectric power, with “every river or creek” dammed for power generation.

·         Right: Trains 150 miles an hour (in some countries). Wrong, sigh: Everybody will walk ten miles a day. Bizarre: “Fast electric ships” going 60 miles an hour to reach England in two days. There will be “air-ships” but they won’t compete with cars and boats.

·         No wild animals. No rats or mice.

·         Pretty much on the money: Being able to “see around the world,” make telephone calls around the world, hear high-fidelity music broadcasts.

·         Not so much: oranges grown in Philadelphia, apple-size strawberries, beet-size peas. Free university educations for all.

It’s worth noting that a group of the wisest and most careful men can be much more broadly and interestingly wrong than one person. Especially with no women handy to make fun of their lunacy. Also worth noting: Not only no concerns with the environment, but treating as desirable wiping out whole groups of species and turning every river and creek into a controlled power-generation unit.

The Futures of Publishing

I’ve deliberately excluded “ebook futurism” from this roundup, but that leaves a number of items taking on presumed futures for publishing and reading.

Clive Thompson on the Future of Reading in a Digital World

On one hand, this is from Wired (posted May 22, 2009, in issue 17.06, presumably the May 2009 issue)—but on the other, it’s by Clive Thompson, sometimes one of the less gaga writers at Wired. Not, I think, this time. He starts with one anecdote—a McKenzie Wark book on gaming that also appeared as an online series of conversations—and turns that into a universal need for transformation of the written word. He explicitly says that books can survive “in this Facebooked, ADD, multichannel universe”—but “only if publishers adopt Wark’s perspective and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word. We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.” [Emphasis added.] As always with the Wired mindset, it’s the future, not a future or many futures.

Every other form of media that’s gone digital has been transformed by its audience. Whenever a newspaper story or TV clip or blog post or white paper goes online, readers and viewers begin commenting about it on blogs, snipping their favorite sections, passing them along. The only reason the same thing doesn’t happen to books is that they’re locked into ink on paper.

Which he follows with “Release them, and you release the crowd.” It gets stranger: He approvingly cites one “e-publishing veteran from the CD-ROM days” who believes that “setting books free” would produce a class of professional readers: “People so insightful that you’d pay to download their footnotes.” Because people are so ready to pay for content online in general, they’d be even readier to pay for annotations?

Of course Thompson repeats the anecdata that (a handful of) authors who give away digital copies end up selling more print copies.

Thompson backs away from universality slightly in his closing paragraph:

I’m not suggesting that books need always be social. One of the chief pleasures of a book is mental solitude, that deep, quiet focus on an author’s thoughts—and your own. That’s not going away. But books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.

Except, except…books have never been “held hostage.” You don’t need to have the text of a book online in order to discuss it online, and never have. Most discussions of TV shows don’t embed the entire episodes in the discussion and discussions of films almost never do; indeed, most discussions of TV and flicks that I see (on Friendfeed, for example) don’t even embed clips.

I guess Thompson is attempting to show how wonderful crowd footnoting will be, as he’s using some add-on that allows sticky notes in the text: Several passages have yellow highlighting and, when you set the cursor over a balloon with a number (one that sometimes obscures the text), readers’ insights pop up. I read all of the annotations; they don’t constitute particularly strong endorsement for the column itself. (Notes could only be added by “active and trusted users” and mostly they were saying “great stuff.”)

Here’s a question: Do you believe that most newspaper stories are transformed because of comments and the like? TV shows? White papers? Really?

Future of the book is not a “container question”

That’s Helene Blowers in an August 3, 2009 post at LibraryBytes—and it could easily be a follow-up to Thompson’s column. She even cites the same online service,, as a prime example of what she’s talking about. (I haven’t heard much about BookGlutton.)

Blowers seems to think the “digital age” can change reading from consumption to creation:

Reading at its core is actually a consumption activity that at it’s best is a solitary pursuit. When we read, we consume and amass someone else’s knowledge, ideas, and stories. For many of us it’s an escape from our own day-to-day by providing the ability to jump inside someone else’s head.

The jump from print to digital actually doesn’t change any of this. However, when I think about the book as digital format from a larger perspective, I see a much bigger picture unfolding. Not only is knowledge no longer bound to its physical format, it’s no longer bound as medium designed primarily for consumption. With digital formats offering the ability to connect with other readers (consumers you might even say) over networked platforms, the consumption of knowledge can actually become a participatory activity resulting in the creation and sharing of new knowledge.

I have two reactions to this: First, reading has always been a major factor in creating “new knowledge” (I’ll say “new media,” since knowledge only happens in someone’s head after they, err, consume information). Second, there’s nothing wrong with books being primarily a medium designed for consumption; that’s true of pretty much every medium except possibly social networks, including blogs, movies, TV, magazines, wikis…

I find Blowers’ final two paragraphs (except for a one-sentence question) unconvincing and (to me) a bit incomprehensible. They’re reproduced precisely as written (including emphasis):

Indeed, the conversational quality of books takes on new meaning when the content is unbound and as the battles continue on in the race for the perfect ebook container, I can’t help but think we’ll be loosing the war if all we focus on is the impact of the digital book as it relates to consumption activities and don’t take a look at where libraries can really add value in the bigger picture.

Libraries need to think about impact of the ebook not from the aspect of providing access to materials in digital format or as containers to merely support reading, but from the aspect of what it means to support the sharing and creation of new knowledge from published knowledge that in the digital format can be easily unbound. I know that supporting this type of shift is not only huge, it’s also contains many unknowns and challenges. But if we’re not thinking about how to support “the book” in its unbound state, you can bet with today’s exploding information economy that someone else is.

I’m all for public libraries facilitating creation (as an additional service, not as a replacement for collections and programs)—but I don’t see that this has much to do with “unbinding” books. I infer that Blowers believes books are predominantly going (or should go) digital, although that’s not stated. Her final question yielded two comments—one of which is entirely orthogonal to her discussion (a person wants to have digital readers at reference desks) and one that’s interesting but (to my mind) a little peculiar…but maybe that’s because I don’t believe 95% or more of book readers have much interest in comparing five different versions of the Bible or comparing use of the word “finally” in fifty books. Reading is the basis for most of my creative activity, but when I’m reading books, I’m mostly interested in “consumption,” in enjoying other people’s creations. I’m guessing I’m not in the minority here.

Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Deeply Slanted Play in Three Acts

This playlet by John Scalzi appeared February 3, 2010 on Whatever. The three characters are Scalzi, his wife, and “Elton P. Straümann, a modern-thinking man with exciting ideas.” Scalzi chose that name carefully and with full intent. As always with Whatever, you should read the original—Scalzi’s so much better a writer than I’ll ever be that the comparison’s ludicrous. To summarize:

·         Act 1: Straümann announces that the publishing world is changing, with “fat cat middle men” no longer getting in between authors and audiences. Scalzi asks about editing, copyediting, covers, book design, publicity…and is told “Yes, yes. But all those things you can do yourself.” Scalzi: “And I’m supposed to write the book, too?” The natural response from this kind of futurist: “As if writing was hard.”

·         Act 1, Scene 2: Months later, Scalzi returns with a book, which took a while because he had to do all the publishing functions as well as writing it—which cost “thousands of dollars out of my own pocket and the better part of a year.” Straümann responds by pulling out his ereader and saying “I’m sorry. I only read on this.” As Scalzi sighs and leaves, the futurist asks why he’s not writing more and wants the sequel.

·         Act 2: A year later. Straümann wants to know why there’s no sequel. Scalzi says he spent all his money on the first book, which didn’t sell very well. The response: “Well, what did you expect? The editing was sloppy, the copy editing was atrocious, the layout was amateurish and the cover art looked like it was Photoshopped by a dog. Who would want to buy that?” When Scalzi notes that he couldn’t afford professional support, he’s informed that he should be able to find professionals who will do this for “almost nothing” or, better, “exactly nothing.” Oh, and that’s fine, because they profit from the exposure—and since printing costs money, Scalzi should just make it an ebook. Which Straümann says he’ll get off a torrent, since he spent his money on the ereader. “So, pay people nothing to help me create a book I make nothing on, for people who will refuse to pay for it.” The futurist says he wouldn’t put it that way—but yes.

·         Act 3: Still no sequel. Scalzi found that good editors and artists don’t work for free. Straümann’s solution? Scalzi’s wife should be his publisher—finding the money somewhere to pay for the functions. After taking this in, Kristine Scalzi offers a rational response to both of the men involved. I’m going to quote the end of the play directly:

KRISTINE clocks STRAÜMANN in the head, stunning him, then rips off his testicles, stuffs them into his mouth and sets him on fire while he chokes on them. STRAÜMANN dies.

KRISTINE (to SCALZI): You. Find a fucking publisher.

SCALZI: Yes, dear.

This sounds about right for books intended for a large audience (that is, for writers who actually hope to make a living at it). This being Whatever, you get a big bonus: 339 comments from the generally interesting and sane community (aided by Scalzi’s occasional moderation). I didn’t read the entire stream, but along with a number of “great stuff” notes, there’s at least one dissenter who seems to infer that there can be no exceptions (which I certainly didn’t get from the piece) and a fair number who do see that, while some writers can (or must, given the niche nature of their work) do the whole job, it’s not a reasonable expectation in general. I’ve done the whole job, and I’ve worked with publishers. Good publishers do it better than I can.

A digression here: Given The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing, which specifically deals with a form of self-publishing, am I being hypocritical in recommending Scalzi’s ode to traditional publishers? I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting micropublishing as the future of print books, because that would be nonsense. I’m offering a way to do special things well, special things that traditional publishers just can’t afford to do.

Back from ALA—the death of commercial publishing

Jamie LaRue in a June 27, 2011 post on myliblog—and this one was tough, as it could belong in this section or the one that follows. He recounts his 12 minutes on an ALA panel, “The Future is Now! Ebooks and their increasing impact on library services,” in which he said “The bullet has passed through the brain of commercial publishing. Now we’re just waiting for the body to fall.” Hyperbole, yes—and, I believe, intended that way. Here’s part of the more nuanced version in the post:

Obviously, commercial publishing is still around. Patrons still ask for traditional content. Libraries have to find ways to get it. My library is working with Overdrive, 3M, and others.

My premise is that ebook and self-publishing together represent an explosion in the quantity of writing, and librarians don’t know much about it. It’s easy to dismiss it all as bad. Much of it may be. Much of commercial publishing isn’t so hot, either.

But if the job of public libraries is to gather, organize, and present the intellectual content of our culture to the community, we’d better get busy. We need to look into it, find ways to sample and deliver it, figure out what it means. Maybe even take part in it, help our communities make rich, compelling, and high quality contributions to it. Become publishers ourselves.

And in a time when a lot of publishers are suddenly refusing to sell this content to us at all, I think it’s important to remind them that they aren’t the only game in town. They are not even where the action is. Many independent publishers and writers are EAGER to sell to libraries….

My message to the ALA audience was to start some experiments with the managing of content, instead of passively waiting for vendors to tell us what they’ll allow us to do….

I don’t believe commercial publishers will or should go away—but I do believe “ebook and self-publishing together represent an explosion in the quantity of writing” and that this explosion shouldn’t be ignored by libraries. I certainly agree that much of what the Big Six produce “isn’t so hot, either.” That paragraph beginning “But if…”—well, I couldn’t agree more. When I read this post, I was inspired to ask Jamie to read my manuscript on micropublishing. He was willing, and provided an outstanding blurb for the book.

But that’s not why I’m citing this. He’s making good points. He’s also trying to follow up on them—including his library’s (and Colorado’s) experiments in alternative models for library ebook circulation, models that mean libraries own the ebooks they buy. I believe LaRue looks at futures (plural) for books and publishing and sees interesting roles for libraries in those futures. I agree.

Are books and the internet about to merge?

That’s the “question” in Damien Walter’s February 15, 2012 post at The Guardian’s book blog—and I put scare quotes around the word because it’s not really a question as the subtitle makes clear: “The difference between ebooks and the internet is minimal, and we should be glad the two are growing closer and closer.”

He quotes Hugh McGuire saying “the book and the internet will merge”—and I don’t buy that at all. McGuire’s case seems to assume (or presume) that ebooks will replace print books entirely, and it’s true that an ebook and a webpage are similar things. So far, so typical: A digital universalist celebrating the inevitable triumph of digital over analog and the new over the old, regardless of history and people’s preferences.

Then it gets strange. Walter says his original reaction to a similar McGuire argument in April 2011 was this: “Books are researched, written, edited, published, marketed … and hence paid for. The internet is ego noise, hence free.” And he’s still saying “Books are something we pay for. Webpages are things we read for free.” He has a clear preference as to which model will win out (and, of course, there can only be one):

Unless you are one of the very small number of people whose fortunes rest upon the outdated business model of publishing, you should hope that the latter wins.

He brushes off the issue of “how writers and editors get paid for the valuable work they do”—because his claim is that we “are very close to making all human knowledge accessible to all people for free.” This trumps everything else: All books should be ebooks should be entirely free, because everything has to be free.

I can only assume that Walter does not write or edit for a living, since there is surely no room in his optimal and inevitable future for doing so. Unless, of course, one recognizes that fiction doesn’t represent “human knowledge” as such, a distinction I don’t see him making. Nope; it all has to be free…for the good of all humankind. Except anybody who makes a living writing, editing, copyediting, or doing anything else that would actually create new works (and who isn’t independently wealthy, in academia, or ad-funded). As is frequently the case, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

The second comment gets this, I think. The final line of that comment: “If books can only be made by hobbyists and the very rich, it’s no longer so fair.” (Walter writes a dismissive response.) Most commenters are less single-minded than Walter and one even comments on the legal way many of us read books for free: From the library. Ah, but Walter’s having none of it. He’s claiming UK libraries cost £4 per book circulated (since, of course, that’s all libraries do). Actually, that response is so hilariously dogmatic that it deserves quotation in full:

No. You can receive them free at the point of loan, having paid for them in advance through taxation. At an average cost of around £4 PER LOAN! A rate at which every young person and pensioner in every borough of the country could be given a free ereader preloaded with every book ever published....

Right. That last sentence is, other than being a clarion call to get rid of those nasty old public libraries, almost hard to read without giggling. (Later, Walter informs us that anyone with “half an ounce of savvy” can hire an editor and designer and self-publish. As long as you have deep enough pockets…)

One very brief comment is hard to ignore: “D’you get paid to write this, Damien?” Ah: Turns out Walter’s writing a novel…with a grant from the Arts Council, a luxury damn few writers in the U.S. or elsewhere get. It becomes clear in Walter’s responses that he has some set points and isn’t really interested in facts. He does say flatly that publishing will disappear entirely within five years. If I was a gambling man, I’d take that bet. (Some other, lengthy, interesting comments in the thread.)

The Futures of Libraries

I would use Future Libraries as a subhead but I’ve used that title elsewhere…seventeen years ago, which makes me feel even older than usual.

Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library

Here’s an odd one: a 34-page PDF from ALA’s Office of Information Technology and Policy, issued in June 2011 and written by Roger E. Levien. Who’s he? A consultant (formerly vice president for Strategy at Xerox) who was a fellow at OITP from 2008 through 2011. The slant of the report is pretty clear: Public libraries facing formidable challenges because of “The digital transformation of all media”—which, of course, is 100% inevitable, complete and all that. Full stop: If it’s analog, it’s dead. Which makes it interesting that one of the first mentions of the report (and related ALA program and, ugh, “webinar”) is from Bruce “Digital Triumphalist” Sterling’s “Dead Media beat” at Wired, where his full comment (before reprinting the press release) is “Whistling past the graveyard.”

No, I take that back. Sterling wins even more friends by inserting this comment after a one-sentence paragraph in the press release (his comment in multiple parens):

Public libraries fulfill a key role in providing information services to America’s communities. (((Although, if they hadn’t existed for 200+ years, no modern American would imagine inventing them.)))

Getting past Sterling’s one-fingered salute to public libraries (who have probably introduced thousands of readers to Sterling’s fiction), I realize that I don’t remember a lot of commentary about this report since it was issued (and going on the web doesn’t yield much that seems particularly noteworthy). It appears to have been issued and largely ignored. Maybe that’s just as well.

I won’t attempt to comment on the entire report. Levien’s laying out a number of alternative visions—but with obvious bias in a number of areas. For example, he says that a purely physical library (with physical facilities and physical media) “is no longer strategically realistic,” which may or may not be true—but then goes on to say that the “most realistic extremes” toward the physical end will consist of primarily off-site collections held jointly with other libraries in its region. Really? For any valid public library to serve its public and community, it must send most of its books to regional storage facilities? And that’s the extreme toward providing physical materials?

I found it difficult to get past a bias that extreme, based on—as far as I can tell—nothing much more than What Roger Levien Asserts. Given that most of America’s 9,000+ public libraries are locally controlled, the assertion that even the most physically-oriented of them must ship most of their collections to regional storage facilities, presumably under regional control, strikes me as flatly absurd. Even NYPL is having trouble convincing its users that offsiting most of its collection is desirable; for most smaller libraries, it would be (I believe) a damaging decision.

At the other extreme, Levien seems to think entirely virtual public libraries (not virtual outlets or branches, but virtual libraries) are sensible, with no physical programs (story hour, etc.), no physical collection, no physical anything—but, presumably, lots of public tax support. Oh, and that “almost all” public libraries “are being drawn toward the virtual endpoint by the rapid growth in the availability of digital media over the Internet.”

The second dimension in the study strikes me as a false opposition: “Individual to community libraries.” At one extreme, libraries focus purely on the individual; at the other, purely on the community. At the “community” extreme you’d presumably get rid of circulating collections entirely—and at the “individual” extreme there would be no programs. Why is this even a dimension? Doesn’t any workable public library (with even close to adequate funding) do both, serving communities (which are made up of individuals) and individuals?

The third dimension is also odd: Collection to creation. Yes, I believe more public libraries will and should be more involved in creating—but not at the expense of building and maintaining collections. Neither extreme seems at all sensible to me.

Similarly the last, at least for public libraries: Portal to archive—one extreme being a library that doesn’t own anything at all, the other a library that only provides access to its own collections. I don’t see people paying for purely-portal libraries, and there are precisely zero public libraries that have Internet terminals available for public use but are archive libraries: It’s not possible.

Looking at the rest of the report, the biases—physical media are going away, nobody will want them anyway, everybody will have high-speed broadband—flaw the discussions, as does the assumption that all libraries will, in effect, be regionally controlled. Consider the expanded case of the purely physical library—remembering that this is the physical extreme, as close to a current library as Levien will admit for, say, 2030:

Thus in this modified case of a purely physical library, the library’s facilities remain physical, but the media it offers its patrons are likely to have left the building, returning by courier from other facilities or, more likely, arriving via the Internet.

That’s his retrograde extreme. As I read on, it becomes apparent that Levien really wants national digital library systems—the Digital Public Library of America as the public library system. Oh, cities would still pay (although Levien suggests that it’s appropriate to expect patrons to pay directly as well), but with no real local control.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. (I read the other six detailed “case studies,” and found them even less convincing than the first two.) I wonder how many public libraries actually found this document useful, compelling, workable?

I’ll quote the Conclusion paragraph, and I don’t disagree with it—I just don’t see that it’s connected to the rest of the document:

The changes confronting public libraries over the next 30 years will be profound, just as those of the past 30 years have been. That libraries have responded so effectively thus far is encouraging, yet it appears that they will have to face even more difficult challenges in the future. The choices described in this policy brief respond to the possible outcomes of the economic, social, and technological forces and trends that will affect libraries. Yet they all assume that public libraries will continue to exist. Unfortunately, it is not impossible to imagine a future without libraries. If that is to be avoided so that libraries can continue to fulfill their role as guarantors of free and unbiased access to information, they must play an active role in shaping their future.

That’s true even if—as I believe—the futures are likely to mix print and ebooks, physical and virtual media in other areas, single patron-oriented and group-oriented services and both collection and (generally to a lesser extent, I suspect) creation.

Public libraries: A long-overdue argument

The writer and venue here are both significant (for this discussion and in general): futurist Richard Watson, posting on August 27, 2011 at What’s Next: Top Trends. Also worth noting: Watson is currently based in London—where the situation with public libraries and the future is especially troubling, in part because UK public libraries have had decreasing usage (apparently), unlike US public libraries.

It’s also notable for one of those wonderful cases where somebody publicly admits to error. Watson’s the person who put out the “extinction timeline”—which included public libraries expiring in 2019. Says Watson now (emphasis added):

Now at this point I have to put my hand up and admit to being wrong. Some time ago I created an extinction timeline, because I believe that the future is as much about things we’re familiar disappearing as it is about new things being invented. And, of course, I put libraries on the extinction timeline because, in an age of e-books and Google who needs them.

Big mistake. Especially when one day you make a presentation to a room full of librarians and show them the extinction timeline. I got roughly the same reaction as I got from a Belgian after he noticed that I’d put his country down as expired by 2025.

Fortunately most librarians have a sense of humour, as well as keen eyesight, so I ended up developing some scenarios for the future of public libraries and I now repent. I got it totally wrong. Probably.

Watson separates public libraries from their collections (he’s still inclined to believe books will go away) and assumes that most people who think libraries are dying do so because all books are or will be cheap and fast to download or buy, so “why bother with a dusty local library?” Let’s pass over that “dusty” for what follows:

I’d say the answer to this is that public libraries are important because of a word that’s been largely ignored or forgotten and that word is Public. Public libraries are about more than mere facts, information or ‘content’. Public libraries are places where local people and ideas come together. They are spaces, local gathering places, where people exchange knowledge, wisdom, insight and, most importantly of all, human dignity.

A good local library is not just about borrowing books or storing physical artefacts. It is where individuals become card-carrying members of a local community. They are places where people give as well as receive.

Libraries are keystones delivering the building blocks of social cohesion, especially for the very young and the very old. They are where individuals come to sit quietly and think, free from the distractions of our digital age. They are where people come to ask for help in finding things, especially themselves. And the fact that they largely do this for nothing is nothing short of a miracle.

“Not just about borrowing books” is both right and apropos—although unless “they” in the last sentence refers to community members, it’s a little off: Communally funded is not “for nothing.” Then Watson offers the argument (definitely not a strawman—see the previous discussion) that public libraries shouldn’t have buildings, that they can just offer services virtually, maybe for a fee.

Costly mistake. This would be a huge error in my view, partly because what people want is not always the same as what they need and partly because this focuses purely on the information at the expense of overall learning and experience.

Some people have argued that content is now king and that the vessel that houses information is irrelevant. I disagree. I believe that how information is delivered influences the message and is, in some instances, more meaningful than the message.

As I’ve already said, libraries are about people, not just books, and librarians are about more than just saying “Shhh.” They are also about saying: “Psst – have a look at this.” They are sifters, guides and co-creators of human connection. Most of all they are cultural curators, not of paper, but of human history and ideas.

You may want to read the whole essay (it’s not that long), so I won’t quote much more, but I will quote two more paragraphs, with the one-sentence paragraph illustrating why I like Watson a whole lot more than I like Bruce Sterling:

What libraries do contain, and should continue to contain in my view, includes mother and toddler reading groups, computer classes for seniors, language lessons for recently arrived immigrants, family history workshops and shelter for the homeless and the abused. Equally, libraries should continue to work alongside local schools, local prisons and local hospitals and provide access to a wide range of e-services, especially for people with mental or physical disabilities.

In short, if libraries cease to exist, we will have to re-invent them.

There’s more that I won’t deal with. Also a range of comments, some of them interesting.

Not Worried About Circulation

Here’s a think piece by Joe Grobelny, posted December 12, 2011 at All These Birds with Teeth. Two caveats before quoting: I’m generally avoiding writing about academic libraries (partly because I worked indirectly for them for so long, partly because they’re almost as heterogeneous as public libraries, partly because I don’t feel I understand them any more)—and Grobelny’s post didn’t get any comments, which surprises me. But here’s (most of) what he has to say (with a reference to Weinberger that I have to leave in even though I’m omitting the precedent):

The shocking truth about print books: 49% of our stacks has never circulated since 1996.

This tweet came through the other day, and frankly it didn’t bother me the way it used to. It leans on a little bit by Raganathan’s first law, which is “Books are for use.” If they’re not being used, then why keep them? I like to make the argument that we can’t always anticipate how things will be used by others. Consider Mendelssohn’s “rediscovery” of Bach. Books are not just for current use, but they easily translate into future use.

There is some precedent for this; the logical methods of observation and refinement at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution enabled the creation and improvement of the microscope and the telescope. In turn, these tools both grew and shrank our sense of the world, enhancing the idea of hierarchies. Much social and scientific organization followed that path and destroyed its predecessors. We build the tool to change things, and then the tool changes us. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

This is the logic that leads most folks into a postmodern tailspin, where everything eats itself. It’s a fun place to be, and the revolutionary excitement is great, but it leaves you with a hangover…

…The internet relies on massive underlying power structures, they are just in different hands that those who made books, although there’s some overlap, clearly…. What shouldn’t be bought is the easy bill of sale for something that actively destroys lasting value in order to create current value, because frankly, Weinberger isn’t making that trade either.

So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means. -William Pannapacker, We’re Still in Love with Books

There’s a lot of shifts coming up, and yes, it’ll be nice to have more shelf space, but libraries also need to protect the culture of learning over time, not just its resources. So yes to creative destruction, yes to weeding more, yes to being more criticial about the books we take in, but think about your core values as opposed to the values that are sold to you, because often, you’re paying a price. Value is more than money, and it’s our job to build value over time. That includes not just current use, but future use.

There’s a link between this and the previous post. To wit, at least for some libraries, collection maintenance (the combination of development and weeding) needs to consider Grobelny’s final two sentences—and to remember that, at least collectively, libraries (and librarians) are “cultural curators…of human history and ideas”—many of which are maintained most effectively in books.

Future Libraries and 17 Forms of Information Replacing Books

There are futurists and then there are Futurists, like Futurist Thomas Frey, “Google’s top-rated futurist speaker,” who styles himself “Futurist Thomas Frey” in the little bio on the sidebar of, his blog—where this appeared on March 2, 2012. He also signs his posts not “Tom” but “Futurist Thomas Frey.” Did I mention that Frey regards himself as a futurist? And specifically, given his banner below the post, “Book Futurist Speaker” and author of “the book that changes everything.” (OK, I’m jealous—like most folks, say, 99.9999…% of writers, I’ve never written a “book that changes everything.” I’m not even sure the Bible changed everything, and I’m nearly certain no other book justifies that claim.)

It’s one of those infuriating piece, because I like some of what he’s saying and wish Frey wasn’t such an absolutist when it comes to print books and physical media in general. Thus, the very first paragraph:

Question: As physical books go away, and computers and smart devices take their place, at what point does a library stop being a library, and start becoming something else?

Note that “As”—this isn’t “To the extent that” or “If,” because either of those would suggest that “computers and smart devices” can coexist with print books, and that’s not part of Frey’s Singular Future.

He says “Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books.” If you add “solely” after the first “not,” I’d applaud that. (The second sentence is historically questionable.) But his statement as to what libraries are is so simplistic that it bothers me a lot:

Libraries exist to give us access to information.

Hmm. There goes story hour. There go fiction collections. There go most community functions of most public libraries. And, indeed, if the only function of libraries is to provide access to information, then libraries just might be doomed.

Frey doesn’t believe books work very well any more and lists “17 basic forms of information that are taking the place of books”—and a very odd list it is, since it includes some media that are nearly a century old (and some comparisons that are bizarre, but I’m not going to fisk the whole essay).

His concluding paragraphs are fine, once you separate them from his digital triumphalism:

Libraries are here to stay because they have a survival instinct. They have created a mutually dependent relationship with the communities they serve, and most importantly, they know how to adapt to the changing world around them.

I am always impressed with the creative things being done in libraries. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” There are a lot of beautiful dreams taking place that will help form tomorrow’s libraries.

Who am I to argue with “the dean of futurists,” a “celebrity speaker” who is executive director of a futurist institute (which he launched) and, in what I assume to be his own words, “a powerful visionary who is revolutionizing our thinking about the future”? Nobody important; just someone who believes that books, including print books, will continue to be a significant part of tomorrow’s culture and the history of our culture—and that libraries are not only about a lot more than just books, they’re about a lot more than just information.

General and Specific Futures

This cluster of items relates to a variety of commentaries about the future (or some futures), which have in common that they’re not very short-range forecasts (the focus of Part 2 of this roundup).

Your Roger Corman Future

Jason Scott posted this at ASCII on November 10, 2010. Among other things, he’s produced two truly independent documentaries on aspects of technology BBS (about bulletin board systems) and GET LAMP (about text adventures)—except that they’re not single documentaries.

The two films have grossed (versus netted) six figures apiece. I am my own distributor. I am my own agent. I am my own packaging and art director. My subjects are specific and niche and in both cases, the films stand as the defacto baselines of the cinematic meditations on the subject. I am, by most standards, a wild success. Therefore, if I’m saying anything now, I’m saying it within the guise of the guy who has actually succeeded at making independent films.

He distinguishes lower-case “independent” from “the bullshit term Independent,” basically Hollywood wannabes. (From the “independent” flicks we’ve been seeing, e.g. those distributed by Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics, “Independent” now means Hollywood Lite: Flicks done with seven-figure or low-eight-figure rather than high-eight and nine-figure budgets, but still using Hollywood methods and at least one recognizable star. Maybe those are INDEPENDENT! films.)

He’s offering his informed predictions on media over the coming years—and I’m certain he’s wrong on the first:

It will be strange to buy physical media for your entertainment by 2013. Strange like buying a CRT TV for your house, or buying vinyl records. You will do it, because you’re of a certain type, but you will be in a fun little minority and it will be an effort to acquire the physical media. Right now, it’s just annoying. Within a few years, it’ll be pretty strange. Eventually it will be totally weird.

Given that every Target, all the supermarkets around here and many other stores carry sizable collections of DVDs and Blu-Ray in April 2012, not to mention Amazon, “by 2013” is way offbase. And “physical media” include books and magazines: Neither of those is going away in physical form in a long time, certainly not by 2013.

The other three predictions: There will be no more than a dozen “networks for distributing entertainment media”—with only about ten workable ones; the networks are going to screw media creators really hard; and “films that are not locked into these networks in some way are going to be even more pathetic and desperate than they are.” Note how the focus has shifted from media to films, period.

Thus “your Roger Corman future”—that “independent” flicks will be Cormanesque, which is not a compliment. Scott talks about the way he makes films (does he actually use film these days, or is “film” just convenient shorthand for “moving picture”?):

I make extremely geeky films that take years to craft that attempt to be exhaustive, human-oriented narratives brought out of countless interviews of technically-astute people. Not content to merely assign a bunch of pre-fitted spoken narrative from an announcer over slowly-moving slides, I attempt to bring in the voices and the accompanying material a sense of what caused this event or subject to happen. I leverage current technical limitations to make very large bodies of work, in the multiples of hours in length, and provide them as a finished, massive package which itself is an integration of the values and themes of the subject.

Yes, the whole paragraph’s in italics. Given that Scott’s blog is white letters on a black background, this shouldn’t be surprising. (It’s worse than that: When I turn off my “use the typeface I want to see” preference, I see that he’s using a monospaced Courier-like typeface, Droid Sans Mono, except that it’s sans, so it’s even cruder than Courier. The font-family is “Droid Sans Mono, Monaco, courier new, courier, monospaced”—Scott really doesn’t like proportional type.) Whew. Pardon me while I turn off Firefox’s “Allow pages to choose their own fonts, instead of my selections above” control and get back to Palatino Linotype…

Anyway, back to Scott—who I find interesting and worthwhile on many levels, although blog æsthetics definitely isn’t one of them. He offers reasons that his documentaries take a while to make and cost a fair amount, then notes some of the reactions people had when his latest came out at $45. They are pretty nasty reactions, offered before the documentary was released. Here’s his conclusion:

I’m mostly bringing up this collection of saucy quotes to point out what’s going on here: the film, the idea of film, is rapidly becoming devalued. Not just devalued; decimated.

[I know, I know: Properly, decimated means being reduced by 10%. I think that battle has been lost.]

He goes into a well-spoken rant about Netflix—and I think he’s making a bad assumption. (He seems to think people assume Netflix pays royalties based on rentals; I certainly never assumed that, at least not for disc rentals.)

I am at this point convinced that a large amount of audience have little or no idea of what it costs to make a film. I’ve encountered folks who literally think the cost is the physical media of printing the DVD and the packaging, and if they download a copy at zero, my costs are therefore zero, and we’re quits. I’ve been informed what my movie should cost and the next set of calculations are based on that should. And I’ve encountered a lot of strange ideas over what exactly constitutes a fair price—and the crime I am committing not holding to it.

He sees two solutions to the problem that people think movies should cost $2 or a game $1 (but, y’know, millions of people pay $15 for a movie or $20 for a Blu-ray version if they actually want to own the movie, or $20-$40 for a TV season—oh, never mind…): “Make no profit, or make shittier movies.” He quotes a letter from a student who won’t pay $45, expects to get it from a torrent real soon now, and recommends that he give it away and ask for $5 or $10 donation—and closes with this: “I really hope you make some money off this and I really cant wait to see it, but for $45 dollars I will wait. Best of luck and sorry to chew your ear off!” Right. “Now that I’ve told you you need to give it away, and made it clear that I think pirating it is legitimate, best of luck and I hope some idiot’s willing to pay you.”

You’ve got to really put this one up on the lift and root around under it to see where it is coming from and where it’s trying to take me. Again, this was sent directly to me, an education from someone half my age explaining how the world works; he felt I needed to understand this, this idea of what things really “cost”. His business model, a sort of begging freemium, is well established and predates him by a while, but his interest in me going that way is by explaining to me, in no uncertain terms, that not only should I do it this way, that if I don’t, I will be pirated. (As a side note, a high-res scan of the gold coin is not yet as good as the gold coin, but he seems to think otherwise.)

I am less specifically interested in the kid himself than what he represents—an idea that things are inevitable, that films of a specific quality just happen, that they should all go to a $5/$10 optional payment, and it will all work out, like a game of Super Mario Brothers. That in a world where you “will” end up on The Pirate Bay, that people will gravitate towards payment regardless, and not just consider your work a part of the background, another thing to play for 15 minutes until moving onto the next shiny button. I think he’s right that I am going to encounter more and more of his type, who do not just consider these works to be side-effects of the ecosystem of technology, but not, in the greater sense, worth any more than anything else. A movie as ringtone; a song as system beep; a book as forum post.

Which brings him to Roger Corman, who he says makes “shit films” that occasionally aren’t shit for more-or-less accidental reasons. “But what they also were are cheap.” No question: Corman makes movies for almost nothing and in almost no time. The results show it, if you pay attention. I think Scott’s right here: The Corman approach can result in great stuff, “but it is also a place where you are guaranteed a lot of excruciatingly awful stuff will happen. But goddamn, that stuff is cheap. Sell that for five bucks a head and you’ll not lose a dime.”

Here’s his real message—and, taking away his first prediction, I’m not sure he’s wrong:

What I’m saying is, if you degrade the meaning of media to the point that you expect, nay feel the need to write the filmmaker should he decide to charge for his work, you will get Roger Corman. You will not get me. If you get someone like me, you will get one film out of them, one that cost them a lot of money but which they are very proud of. But they won’t be able to go another round—there’s no money to do it with.

Scott suspects this may be the future. He may be right for some media; I’d like to think he’s wrong as a universal stance.

Then there are the comments. The very first one suggests “well, sell it for $10 as a download, not $45 for a DVD.” One consultant says maybe it should be $100, not $45. A few people seem to get what Scott’s saying. Some are a little bizarre (I wonder what Orson Wells and his cinematographer for Citizen Kane would have to say about the claim that “The introduction of sound made filmmakers stop giving a shit about cinematography for about 15 years”?). One lectures Scott on this being all his fault—and uses that phrase! There’s this (noting that Scott has successfully used Kickstarter for seed money):

As somebody who has both contributed to the completion of Get Lamp and bought the DVD, I’d like to say that I’m deeply sorry that I did. Not because of the work, but because this post has finally convinced me that Mr. Scott is an incredible asshole with views that make Gates’s infamous letter from 35 years ago look progressive. Thanks for your attention.

There’s an incredible asshole involved in that particular interchange, but I don’t think it’s Scott. As he makes clear, he’s doing OK—both films did pretty well (and they’re both CC licensed). He sees a general problem, not a specific problem. I’m going to quote the last four paragraphs of Scott’s comment, because the last part of it offers one reason I really like Scott (despite his atrocious taste in blog typography):

This is mostly me looking out on the landscape and finding that things are not going to be as easy to bring out that aren’t quick-n-dirty jobs, maybe looking good but with razor-thin margins and tiny production times. Good by luck, not always by design. Like Corman’s films.

I’m not in trouble. I just don’t think things are going to get better for some kinds of films, including what I make.

Also: “Incredible” asshole is inaccurate. You meant “World-Class” asshole.

World. Class.

Those who really don’t get economics continue to not get it: One earlier commenter basically says only consumers get to decide prices, not creators, that “its not for you to decide” what something should sell for and “you just have to accept it.” There’s a great response to that (not from Scott): “I have decided that $500 is a fair price for a brand new Corvette. It’s not for General Motors to decide, and they’re just going to have to accept it.” A bunch of people seem to miss one central point: That not only did people decide Scott’s documentary wasn’t worth $45, they felt obliged and empowered to bitch at him about it and tell him what it should cost. There are also, to be sure, some excellent (and in some cases) long comments.

Oh, hell, go read the original post and comments. Even if I have just spent way too much text on them. And if you care a lot about text adventures, pony up the $45 for GET LAMP. (I would say “If you care about Cites & Insights, pony up the $10-$25,” but now I’d probably just get lectured on why that’s unreasonable.)

Five factoids for the future

There’s an interesting difference between the title of this May 5, 2011 post at What’s Next: Top Trends by Richard Watson—and the page title/URL title: “Five facts that will turn your world upside down.” The direct title is modest; the page title shouts importance. He’s “revisiting five trends to highlight a few ways in which our world is changing.” I’ll give the five factoids (an interesting choice of words, given that I think of “factoid” as something that has every appearance of being based on good information but that may not itself be meaningful—and I don’t think that’s what he intends), but it’s his discussions that are significant, and I’m mostly referring you back to the article for those.

·         Half of all the people aged 65+ that ever lived are alive right now. (He thinks this leads to a “global war for talent due to a lack of skilled workers” and “a power shift from employers to employees”—and, because the US is almost unique among first-world nations in having a growing working population, that it means the US economy is fairly resilient. I’m waiting for those part-time job offers given the lack of talent…)

·         China has 21% of the world’s population but only 1.8% of the world’s oil. (Go read his discussion, but I think he overstates the ability of market forces to create new sources of oil.)

·         There are now 4.1 billion mobile (cell) phones on the planet, 75% of which reside in developing regions. (Somehow this means “a movement of power away from companies and governments toward individuals.” Maybe. Maybe not, at least in the US.)

·         China consumes 40% of the world’s steel production, 30% of the world’s coal and 25% of the world’s aluminum and copper. The country also accounts for 40% of the increase in demand for oil since 2001. (This seems like a broader version of #2.)

·         In 2008 an average PC was 32,000 times more powerful and 12 times less expensive than an average PC in 1981. (I question the “12 times less expensive,” but 1981 is a really early date…and I certainly question the prediction that the number of internet-connected devices will go from five billion in 2011 to one trillion! by 2013. But never mind. It’s all about the Incredible Increasing Pace of Everything.)

No additional comment here.

5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’

Robert Darnton, posted April 12, 2011 at The Chronicle Review—and I’m not going to blame Darnton for starting a headline with “5.” Especially not after an opening paragraph like this, paying special attention to the seventh and eighth words of the first sentence:

Confusion about the nature of the so-called information age has led to a state of collective false consciousness. It’s no one’s fault but everyone’s problem, because in trying to get our bearings in cyberspace, we often get things wrong, and the misconceptions spread so rapidly that they go unchallenged. Taken together, they constitute a font of proverbial nonwisdom. Five stand out:

The five, each stated as a quotation?

·         “The book is dead.” (Darnton notes that new print book production—I think he means titles, not copies, but I think he’s right in either case—continues to grow year over year. Oh, by the way, total sales are starting to rise again as well…)

·         “We have entered the information age.” As he points out, every age is an age of information—and it’s “misleading to construe [today’s pace of] change as unprecedented.” I think this one can be pushed at, but I’m not ready to do that refutation. And, of course, “the X age” is always sort of simplistic.

·         “All information is now available online.” A long paragraph leading off with this gem: “The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives.”

·         “Libraries are obsolete.” Another great paragraph, starting: “Everywhere in the country librarians report that they have never had so many patrons. At Harvard, our reading rooms are full. The 85 branch libraries of the New York Public Library system are crammed with people.” And continuing to note the many new servicers—ways that libraries “are responding to the needs of their patrons.” His close here: “Libraries never were warehouses of books. While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information at the neighborhood level as well as on college campuses.”

·         “The future is digital.” Here he says “True enough, but misleading.” That is: Yes, most “information” will be digital, “but the prevalence of electronic communication does not mean that printed material will cease to be important. Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones, at least not in the short run.” And, of course, more. Dominantly digital—whatever that means—doesn’t mean entirely digital, or at least it shouldn’t.

Darnton doesn’t just explicate five myths. He notes why they’re important:

…I think they stand in the way of understanding shifts in the information environment. They make the changes appear too dramatic. They present things ahistorically and in sharp contrasts—before and after, either/or, black and white. A more nuanced view would reject the common notion that old books and e-books occupy opposite and antagonistic extremes on a technological spectrum. Old books and e-books should be thought of as allies, not enemies.

There’s more and it’s excellent reading and thinking. (There’s also at least one mistake, not part of my selections: In at least one case—law—Darnton may have confused “available online” with “freely available online.” Also some interesting comments (and some faintly bizarre ones, and of course somebody claiming Darnton’s raising straw men because nobody ever said any of these things! And one “Howard” who persistently says “Not so!” in various ways.). Perhaps the funniest (or stupidest?) comment is from one Paul Adams, who nails Robert Darnton to the wall with this:

The rantings of somebody who got a degree in library science that now feels like the last person to pay for training to be a switchboard operator. Your field is going bye bye. Evolve or die.

I imagine it will come as quite a surprise to Oxford’s history department that it’s really a library science department (and presumably actually granted Darnton an MLIS, not a PhD). Naturally, our friend Howard agrees with him.

The future of lighting: walls of light, LEDs, and glowing trees

Stepping back from the big and partly philosophical questions to James Holloway’s July 2011 piece at ars technica, considering the “four main heirs to the incandescent throne” that are likely to become dominant in future lighting, especially since more and more countries will forbid the sale of the most readily-replaceable traditional (tungsten incandescent) bulbs. This is, in other words, a story about aspects of one part of the future, not “everything is going to be X” but “W, X, Y and Z seem likely to be increasingly important over time.” Given that lighting supposedly accounts for 11% of residential and 25% of commercial energy consumption in the U.S., there are good reasons for change.

The four main heirs are linear fluorescent (the sticks that have been around for decades), compact fluorescent, LED and OLED. I’m a little surprised that high-efficiency incandescent (halogen and otherwise) isn’t there, but I’m also not a lighting analyst or expert.

This is a fairly long piece (for a website—it’s about 2,500 words or, say, three pages of Cites & Insights) and I think it bears reading in the original. Holloway notes the likely bright future of LEDs (a future that’s currently hampered, for home lighting use, by high prices and the lack of really bright bulbs) with their very high efficiency and (if properly cooled) longevity, and notes that LED lighting outside the home is already a big market. Traditional fluorescent is a lot cheaper initially and current tubes are about as efficient as LEDs, although long-term costs may favor LEDs. I trust that the article’s right in asserting that modern tube fluorescents don’t flicker or hummmm… As for CFLs, what’s there to say? They’re here, they’re good at what they’re good at, but in the long run LEDs are likely to replace them too. (If one prediction—that the cost of LED bulbs will drop by 90% by 2015—is even half right, I’d be delighted, and we’d be replacing a whole bunch of incandescent and CFL bulbs.)

Then there’s the dark horse (since Holloway doesn’t even mention halogen). OLEDs—organic LEDs—which are area sources rather than point sources. “That is, OLEDS are light planes, not light bulbs, and they are better at illuminating areas than objects.” So they’re great for the PlayStation Vita and cell phones—but so far, they’ve been difficult to scale up, and early ones aren’t all that energy-efficient. (Apparently the hallmark for high efficiency is at least 100 lumens per watt; current OLED lamps only reach 25, while the other three can all reach that barrier.) Realistically, you wouldn’t buy OLED replacement screw-in bulbs; you’d buy OLED panels, tiles of light, and such panels have broken the 100 lumen per watt barrier. Unfortunately, OLEDs are relatively dim, so you’d probably have to replace whole ceilings or walls with OLED panels to get enough light. The article includes some notes on more exotic futures.

What do I take from it? Chances are, LED is the most plausible long-term direct replacement for the bulbs we have now, and it has a way to go before it’s really there. OLED would serve complementary purposes. And fluorescents will be around for a while, but may become lesser players over time. Given the number of places in our energy-efficient house where we can’t use CFLs for various reasons, I’m ready…

Oh, as to comments: 100% of the comments are useful and helpful. There aren’t any.

Why 3-D Printing [Is|Isn’t] Like Virtual Reality

Here’s a fun one (and one where I don’t have a horse in the race): a pair of items at Technology Review—Christopher Mim’s January 25, 2012 assertion that 3-D printing isn’t likely to be revolutionary and Tim Maly’s January 27, 2012 response.

Mim first, because this really is point/counterpoint and also because Mim’s fun. The first paragraph:

There is a species of magical thinking practiced by geeks whose experience is computers and electronics—realms of infinite possibility that are purposely constrained from the messiness of the physical world—that is typical of Singularitarianism, mid-90s missives about the promise of virtual reality, and now, 3-D printing.

Oh, I like “Singularitarianism.” Ah, but it turns out it means those who Believe in the Singularity, rather than those that believe there’s only One True Future with One Way to Do Anything. Too bad.

Mim cites “usually level-headed thinkers” like Clive Thompson and Tim Maly declaring the end of shipping because we can all just create whatever we want using 3D printers.

This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.

I haven’t followed the links…all of which seem to be to other Mim pieces. In any case:

But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a “mature” technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.

The rest of a fairly brief piece expands on that—and it helps to understand that Mims thinks 3D printing is neat and has real (if limited) uses—and I believe may lead to this as the core takeout:

The desire for 3-D printing to take over from traditional manufacturing needs to be recognized for what it is: an ideology. Getting all of our goods from a box in the corner of our home has attractive implications, from mass customization to “the end of consumerism.” With stakes like those, who wouldn’t want to be a true believer?

Reading the comments, I see a common situation: Many either didn’t read or didn’t understand the article and are responding to the headline. They assume Mim is writing off 3D printing entirely, which requires complete misreading of the article (just as I’m sure he doesn’t write off virtual reality entirely).

What of Tim Maly’s response? It’s…interesting. He uses 2D printing as an analogy—but, fact is, most printing on paper is still done commercially on big fat traditional presses and shipped around to where it’s needed. He does agree that today’s 3D printing isn’t going to replace much of anything:

It’s clearly a transitional technology. The materials suck. The resolution is terrible. The objects are fragile. You can’t recycle the stuff.

Which does make me wonder about all those (yes, I’ve heard them, some in the library field) shouting that we should get on board with this vast revolutionary technology right now before it passes us by.

What’s his actual counter? People are working on it. And there’s this one:

At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine a convergence from the other direction. Some materials and formats will fall out of favor because they are hard to make rapidly. Think of how most documents are 8.5×11 (or A4) these days. It’s just not worth the hassle of wrangling dozens of paper formats.

Um…so I’ll stop wanting integrated circuits in my cell phones and wood beams where strength for weight counts, and go to all-plastic (and, by the way, wholly nonfunctional) cell phones because it’s easier? That certainly explains why all modern books and newspapers are 8.5” by 11”…oh, wait a minute…

Then Maly goes off in an entirely different direction:

It’s also important not to confuse 3-D printing & desktop-class fabrication. These aren’t the same thing. There is more to desktop manufacturing than 3-D printers. A well-appointed contemporary maker workshop has working CNC mills, lathes, and laser cutters. A well-appointed design studio has the tools to make and finish prototypes that look very nice indeed. Aside from the 3-D printer, none of these tools are terribly science-fictional; they’re well-established technologies that happen to be getting cheaper from year to year.

But Mim’s article wasn’t talking about fab shops; it was talking about 3D printing as a consumer technology. For that matter, the “well-equipped design studio” is no more able to make the LED light bulb I want or my next notebook computer than it is to create wooden decking from some printable slurry.

It’s always interesting when Point/Counterpoint turns into Point/Some Other Point Entirely. Disappointing, but interesting.

What may be the most fascinating element here, given that these both appear under the auspices of MIT’s Technology Review: At least as commenters read them, both writers appear to be writing off virtual reality as a pointless fad. Not just Second Life, but VR in general.

The five technologies that will transform homes of the future

Casey Johnston, “about a month ago“ (sometime in March 2012), ars technica—and given that it starts off with a Jetsons cartoon, how could I be less than upbeat about it? (The caption: “Sadly, the home of the future will not include a flying car. But it will sit on a pole.”)

If you moderate “homes” with “some” or even “new” and recognize that nothing transforming the home happens all that rapidly, this is probably good stuff. Here’s the Jetsonesque summary in the first two paragraphs:

You get home from work on a Tuesday evening. Sensing your arrival, your home turns on the lights in the living room and kitchen. You stop by the bathroom and step on your Internet-connected scale—it absorbs your day’s activity levels from a clip-on fitness monitoring device, then logs them on a website along with your sleeping activity and health history.

After making dinner, you sit down in front of the TV and tell it you want to buy a series you heard about on the way home from work. It responds to your voice, and in a few seconds downloads the entire first season over a gigabit connection. The series automatically downloads to your tablet, too, so you’ll have it available on the go tomorrow.

As should be clear to most of you (many of whom are way more familiar with this stuff than I am), this isn’t Mysterious Deep Future: Other than the gigabit connection (which isn’t going to happen for most of us in the US any time soon, for perhaps stupid reasons), all of this can happen today, for those with the money and interest. Ah—and look at that: you’re still making dinner and watching TV and working. That makes this very conservative forecasting compared to much of the woowoo we see. (Hey, it’s ars technica—same publisher as Wired but a whole lot less woowoo.)

So what are the five technologies?

·         Super high-speed internet. Supposedly there in Kansas City (both) from Google—which is interesting, given that Google’s Mountain View citywide net (its home base) isn’t particularly high speed. Eventually? Truly high speed, no caps on capacity, reasonably priced? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath, at least not at any reasonable price. And if you’re in a rural area? Lots of luck on optical fiber to the home.

·         Smart thermostats and the future of power. Hey, we’ve had a programmable thermostat in our house ever since we replaced the HVAC. This article touts a “learning” thermostat, but I’m not sure that’s much of a development (several commenters note that $60 programmable thermostats like ours are a lot more sensible for most people than $249 “learning” thermostats like the one cited and pictured). Smart grids and smart meters—here now, with a huge “but” that involves citizen resistance (most of it ill-informed).

·         Centralized entertainment and the streaming revolution. Nothing terribly new here, if you buy into an “everything happens ONE WAY” future; some folks already have centralized entertainment and some have given up on physical media.

·         Personal health tools meet constant connectivity. FitBit and its like: Great (as long as they’re optional). The rest of it…well, we’ll see. When somebody says “Your doctor will have constant awareness of your activity, body mass and sleep habits” I hear “Your insurance company will have constant…” but that may be paranoid.

·         The “personal content experience”: e-readers, tablets, “phablets.” As the place for personal entertainment. Why? Apparently because there can only be one future. So you’ll trade in your 54” immersive wide-screen TV so you can watch the shows on your iPad. Well, that’s your choice. Oddly, my brother and sister-in-law both love their iPads—but they watch most TV on a big plasma with surround sound, and I’m guessing they’ll continue to do so.

My main argument comes with the sense that we should be buying into these as the exclusive way of the future. As bits and pieces, with some people using more, some fewer, some none at all—no argument from this quarter.

What We Lose in a Post-PC World

That’s Joe Brockmeier, writing on March 8, 2012 at ReadWriteWeb. Oddly, although citing Gartner’s projections that PC shipments are going to continue to grow, Brockmeier’s ready to believe that Tim Cook’s “post-PC world” (you know: the iPad makes the PC irrelevant) is coming.

Like it or not, the post-PC era looks a lot like the iPad, Kindle Fire, Xbox 360, Roku and any number of smartphones. While these devices are way better for some tasks than traditional PCs, we stand to lose a lot in the transition as well.

Why do these devices make the PC irrelevant? Because—hell, I don’t know. Because Apple’s new CEO says so? In any case, Brockmeier disclaims negative thoughts about iThingies and the like. He’s mostly doing an odd sort of (to my mind) premature mourning for what’s lost as we (all?) (inevitably?) stop using PCs.

What do we lose? Upgradability. Freedom and choice. Platform portability for programs—er, apps.

I know for many users, the post-PC world will be just fine. You might be one of them. But overall, I think we’re losing something as we embrace computing appliances over general-purpose computers.

The problem here is basic, I think: He sees a death that I don’t see. Neither do some commenters. He argues with some of them. It’s an odd performance. (If you tell me most households probably won’t have recent-vintage personal computers, defined as notebooks or desktops, in another 10 years, I probably wouldn’t argue. Does that mean PCs will be dead? Not really; not even close.)

Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof

I can think of no more fitting way to end this long, long, rambling roundup of futurism than with John Scalzi’s March 21, 2012 post at Whatever—one of a series in which he writes posts responding to readers’ questions.

Pay attention: This is important stuff.

Here’s the question, from Molnar:

It appears to be a near-universal assumption by science fiction writers, directors, and producers, that there exists a set of precipitating events leading to our complete abandonment of doorknob technology. Do you share this assumption? Would you be willing to speculate on the reason for this assumption, or on the nature of the developmental pathway? Do you foresee any significant downsides, should this eventuality come to pass?

Scalzi immediately responds “I love this question.” So do I. And, as a non-writer (of science fiction—I’ve tried, and I’m a terrible fiction writer) but reasonably avid reader, I have the same answer, but Scalzi says it a lot better:

[F]or a while there, having magically sliding doorknobless doors was a cheap and easy way of showing that you were in THE FUTURE. Here in the crappy present, you had to open your own doors! Through physical effort and mechanical energy! But in the future they will slide open on their own. All you had to do was be there for the miracle. This is also why, incidentally, in the future, doors would also be replaced by irised portals. A door? Shaped like a rectangle? How quaint. Do you hand crank your car windows, too?

In other words, sci-fi (and the doorknobless future really is more about sci-fi, movies and TV, than about science fiction) uses this as cheap woowoo: “It’s also why you’ll drink synthahol and wear silvery tunics and whatnot.”

In reality? “We mix and match technology from different eras without thinking about it.” He’s writing the post at a 17th-century-technology kitchen table: wood and nails and glue. Ditto the chair. The laptop’s a MacAir, so that’s 21st century, but he’s using three books (print books—very old tech) and on the table are examples of technologies from several centuries.

He also informs us that doorknobs are fairly recent: they date to the 18th century. (Before that, people had irises that closed or opened when they sensed intruders or friends. Or maybe not.)

There’s a lucid explanation of why we mix and match technology, one that will disappoint Wonders of the Future Home aficionados but rings true to me. Oh, and his science fiction novels do have doorknobs in some cases. “Doorknobs, while not exactly the sexiest technology, are also pretty reliable, unfussy things. I think they’ll stay around.” (If you include door handles as doorknobs, so do I. Most of our doors use handles, and if we replace any knobs we’ll go the handle route, apparently far more common in Germany.) He also notes that today’s SF writers don’t feel the need to impress readers with THE FUTURE.

There are 88, count’em, eighty-eight comments on this world-shattering screed: Whatever is one of a kind. One points out that “spiffy doors that open when you walk up to them” aren’t that futuristic these days, not if you shop in supermarkets, for example. Of course at least one person offers a set of reasons that doorknobs should go away (it’s a fun list)—just as someone refines his labeling of a kitchen table or chair as 17th century (it’s more complicated than that). The stream is fairly fascinating. Including the real reason doors in the old Flash Gordon series were so heavy and hard to open. I won’t spoil it for you.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 4, Whole # 148, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

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