Category: librarianship

There is a lot to like about Lauren Smeadley‘s intriguing proposal to establish a Fab Lab in the Fayetteville Free Library. While I suspect it will yield positive fruits, I confess to being skittish about some of the rhetoric she and her supporters have used to support the idea. While I delight in the video clips featuring Captain Picard in his fully-enlightened glory, any honest Trek geek would admit it wasn’t replicators that brought about a post-capitalist society, but the fatigue for conflict following the Eugenics Wars and first contact with the Vulcans. Not a technology, but a philosophy. Anyway, tempting as it may be, it’s not Jean Luc’s rhetoric I’m here to consider. It’s just that I get a very familiar vibe off of this effort. It takes me back to the heady days of my youth, driving to my first real girlfriend’s house to dialing into the local BBS. At a respectable 1600 baud we traded software and chatted with people with clever (and not so clever) handles. Just by participating in this underground culture we were fighting the power and changing the world, as long as we didn’t get booted when her mom called home from work. Idealism should never, ever die. Nor should we ever stop trying to change the world. But if we’re going to do it, we have to make sure that we’re not letting our enthusiasm make us vulnerable. Vulnerable in particular to the agendas of folks who want to keep the world exactly the same. Mixed in with Picard’s bemused confidence has to be a little of Sisko’s realpolitik. In other words, to push the Trek references a little too far, “never turn your back on a Breen”.

There are so many cautionary lessons to learn from of the early “information society” apostles. For example, I remember reading this quasi-utopian rhetoric and being so inspired. Even this flashy corporate voodoo was exciting (and featured Anna Paquin auditioning for the part of what I can only imagine is conduit to the Senior Partners at Wolfram & Hart). The problem is that the beautiful logic was all flawed. Enthusiast believed that by the Transitive Power of Progress, if a given technology was revolutionary in one domain and was created by smart people with egalitarian intentions, it would necessarily bring about smart, egalitarian revolutions in other domains (politics, economics and society). It just doesn’t work that way. Technology doesn’t make things better, it just makes things different. People can then choose to make things better, or not. It’s so much easier to choose the path of not. Neil Postman wrote a lot about the technological determinism fallacy. Love him or hate him, he has to be accounted for. He pointed out how the internet, like so many other technologies, began with idealistic hobbyists only to come increasing under the control of just a handful ISPs and Telcos. Sure everything is digital now, but at the price of having to deal with the intellectual propertization of everything, too.

What’s my point? The point is, rhetorically overselling the power of technological progress dampens the urgency and sense of individual responsibility people need in order to change the world. And boy does the world need changing. If we don’t take responsibility for carving (or printing) out the future we want, the same people with financial power now will extend their influence to include 3D printing, dominating it, and by extension the very people who need public libraries the most. It’s not just companies doing the dominating either. The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of a highly networked society to subvert autocracy. WikiLeaks, Stuxnet and the AntiSec hacktivist movement demonstrated how vulnerable governments are to cyber espionage. How are central governments going to respond to that? Even in nominal democracies, the government pushback is going to open up millions of personal back channels. It will get harder and harder to be anonymous on the web and easier and easier for mass marketing and mass media to target you personally. No level of proxying or encrypting will protect us if we’re voluntarily participating in a hegemonic panopticon. Right?

So, if the rhetoric of progress is a dangerous way to promote the idea of adding Fab Labs to public libraries what rhetoric should be used? The one that will appeal most to other librarians is one Smeadley is already using, the rhetoric of the public library being an arsenal for democratic culture. This is a popular ideal, and one that does good in the world. Unfortunately it’s one that Michael Harris’ The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History poked pretty big holes in, too. It’s not impossible to still use the foundational myth, but one has to do so very cannily in order to be persuasive. There’s also the librarian’s classic (mostly unfounded) fear of losing relevancy to yet another emerging technology approach, but that would be a very dyspeptic one to try. In the end, I’m not sure it’s a grand rhetoric that is needed, even while one is trying to secure funding. 3D printing is a powerful, emerging technology. It would be useful to get ahead of the adoption curve on it, so librarians can help shape its adoption and implementation in a way that favors free or fair access. That is enough to get me really excited, and probably many other people too.

To be clear, I admire Smeadley’s initiative (in both senses), and am not accusing her of being anything but forward-thinking and appropriately enthusiastic. I am just concerned that it is so very easy to slip into the rhetoric of progress and technological determinism, and that can lead to problems down the road. Not only might it make the local trough of disillusionment deeper than it has to be, there is the very real possibility that if left to the devices of oligarchs, 3D printing could make things worse for democracy instead of better. I sincerely hope I’m just being an old coot about all this, and this time the technology really will change things. I look forward to keeping up with developments in Fayetteville.

I wanted to share this article by Emily Wax from Aug 22nd’s Washington Post titled “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers”. The gist of the article is that around 300 people around the United States have established philosophical counseling practices where, for 80 dollars an hour, clients can pick the mind of a highly trained philosopher. The process is designed to be an alternative to psychological counseling for people who do not believe themselves to be ill, only lacking in perspective, new concept or mental training. The leading proponent of this kind of counseling is Lou Marinoff, the author of Plato Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Widom to Everyday Problems.  Coincidentally an ex of mine once gave me a copy of that book. I could never figure out if it was because she thought I would be a good philosophical counselor, or because she thought I needed perspective, new concepts and mental training. Probably both. In any case, if you are curious about the concept, that would be the place to start.

There is a lot to like about this movement, not the least of which is the idea of philosophers making good money for a change. Beyond that, I think it is good to reinforce the distinction between mental illnesses and erroneous thinking. As Alan Watts liked to say with a laugh, “Anyone who goes to an analyst should have her head examined,” meaning that if you go to a doctor, you can hardly be surprised when you are treated like a sick person. Instead of dwelling on how to “fix” what is “broken” inside one’s self, it may be in some cases healthier to instead come to new understandings of how the world works, and how best we might operate in the world armed with a new understanding. Anything that promotes reflection on the world instead of deeper self-absorption is a welcome practice in my opinion.

That said, I wonder what you all think about the way this counseling is marketed as being access to eternal wisdom? It may be my training in the philosophy of science, or all the 18th century Philosophes murmuring on the shelf behind me, but it seems to me that appeals to timeless wisdom are kind of… bogus. There are two problems here, the eternal part and the wisdom part. Not to get too relativistically funky, but the more timeless something claims to be, the less mass it seems to have, the less substance. Wisdom demands substance, in the form of context and is rooted in practice. If you aren’t engaged in a practice, solo or in a community, wisdom is either exotica or abdication of reason to authority. Wisdom that can be doled out without context is about as useful as a fortune from that Zoltar machine in the movie Big. Worse, it can be harmful, because it can create false understanding. For example, in the article we find this quote from Marinoff:

“Read the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who taught that every loss comes bundled with gain, for they are inseparable manifestations of yin and yang,” offered Marinoff. “In other words, instead of focusing on the loss, focus on the gain: Losing a job, you have just gained an opportunity to develop a latent talent and to enter a more suitable career path.”

That sounds like Really Good Advice, but entering a state of non-judgment is really, really difficult. It takes Taoist practitioners years to habituate this state, and they have the context and foundational theoretical support to buttress them. If I was a client and heard this, it would be very easy to just obsess on looking at the bright side of things, instead of cultivating equanimity. Could a good philosophical counselor provide this context and foundation, certainly. Could they do the same equally well for Nietzsche and Sartre and Schopenhauer and Rousseau and Plato? There’s a reason why therapists don’t specialize in cognitive-behavioral and gestalt and Rogerian and Jungian counseling all at the same time.

In conclusion, I really do think this is a helpful and useful alternative to therapy for those who do not consider themselves ill, but I am suspicious of anyone who makes claims to possess timeless wisdom. If you’re thinking to yourself that I ‘m just jealous people will pay philosophical counselors 80 dollars an hour to give them profound things to read without much context, something librarians will do for free, well, you ain’t wrong. They have to set themselves up as experts in order to charge clients like therapists do, but is the therapy model really the best way to do it? Is there no way to establish small sophist schools instead? Those might be cheaper, create a persistent group of like minded thinkers, and allow for philosophical specialization. Plus, it completely removes the questionable idea of philosopher as healer, and restores the philosopher to position of social teacher, where in my opinion she or he belongs. If you are a philosophical counselor, and have ever dreamed of being a public philosopher, I would be happy to hook you up with some space in the local public library. It would do the polis some good.


This post is a response to a conversation about IBM Watson’s significance for reference librarianship begun by Andy Woodworth on his excellent blog Agnosticmaybe.

First, I want to thank Andy for taking up this subject. I, too was surprised at the lack of response from librarians re:Watson. Also like Andy, I’m high on this technology, and look forward to its implementation in a library context. However, I’m far less confident that it won’t be a significant disruptor for the library profession. In fact, I’d be willing to bank that it will be a game changer. We’ve time and again seen in contests between electronic v. analog resources–as Watson is an electronic resource to the reference librarian’s analog–digital convenience wins out against analog quality as long as the loss in quality is with acceptable parameters. Funds follow the user, so if 80% of people prefer to direct their questions to Watson’s more sophisticated successor, doesn’t it become so much harder to financially justify having three reference librarians on the payroll instead of two? Or eventually–as the iterations of the software progress and the system gets sufficiently adept–just one who verifies the answers. And how challenging would it be to convince administrators that answer verifiers need to be tenure track faculty, with terminal graduate degrees? That’s not a fight I want to see play out in system after system because it’s not one we would consistently win.

Consider also, Watson’s successor (Shera, Dewey, or whatever catchy name vendors come up with) wouldn’t have to reside in the library. Given trends in distributed computing and mobile access, t will reside in the cloud and manifest wherever the user is. That means one fewer reason to step foot in the library. Diminishing foot traffic means more pressure on justifying the presence of expensive physical libraries. If a cheaper and easier digital system comes along, how could it fail to cause disruption in the dominance of its analog equivalent? Maybe Dewey won’t be exactly as good as an experienced reference librarian, but honestly, we can’t afford to sit around hoping that it won’t become say  75% as good. For that matter, after watching Watson torch Ken freaking Jennings in his bailiwick, I’m not so sure that in time Dewey wouldn’t be able to torch us in ours, in terms of information retrieval.

Still, I truly am excited about this technology, because if implemented widely it has the potential to revolutionize user interfaces and information retrieval; an integral step in problem solving. Anything that helps us solve our species’ mounting problems quickly and efficiently is a welcomed thing. That said, I also am excited about librarians, and the future of librarianship, but only if we realize that Watson’s victory is our “Sputnik moment”. It provides us with a reason to reflect now, before we’re no longer the only game in town, on what we really offer to our learning communities. What makes us most special, and how can we accentuate and promote those things? Instead of taking a business-as-usual stance on this, I think we need to recognize that Watson is a real wake up call for a profession that’s been asleep at the wheel for some time now.

Ask the scribes. Adapt or perish, That’s the name of the game.