Asking the Right Questions about Information Technology; until We Begin, We're Skating on Thin Philosophical Ice

Article excerpt

Asking the right questions about information technology

THE GREAT MAJORITY OF writing about libraries, commanding the attention, effort, and thinking of librarians, has been directed toward asking and answering incomplete questions about information technology. Those questions being asked and addressed most frequently are: How? When? and Wont't it be nice when? I contend that we ought to be making a better showing on the questions: Why is information technology goof for libraries, librarians, or the public? and Where will it lead us?

Information technology

in context

In Western societies, "Among our inherited blinders is the identification of simple technological advance with social progress" primarily in the service of business needs. [1] The origins of the "Information Society" lie in the technological developments traceable back through industrialization. "The computer represents only the latest, albeit crucial, version of a long line of 'control technologies,'" built to service industrial(izing) societies. [2]

The education field provides an example and a bridge between this idea and its transition to practice in the public sphere. Drives for computer literacy and computer hardware in schools have been criticized as unqualified endorsements of the computer industry and designed to train new workers, not citizens of a democracy. George Bonham recalls the "failed flirtation" of education with another technology--television--and more ominously notes that computer are the first "significant new force almost exclusively controlled by profit-making corporations" whose "profit margins and sales goals only rarely coincide with educational effectiveness." [3]

Librarians have recognzed this as well. Online retrieval is the "biggest growth industry in librarianchip" and is "firmly lodged in the private sector and dominated by profit-oriented companies." [4] Information technology is redefining copyright concepts and putting public access to certain products on shaky ground. CD-ROM products are being produced and marketed to maintain the overall profits of producers--not to maximize access. [5] Trade groups like the Information Industry Association lobby Congress for higher fees and for shifting more government information to private database vendors. Attesting to the private climate of development in library automation, there are over 50 "significantly different OPAC systems in libraries" with little progress toward standardization. [6] None of this should be a surprise so long as one recognizes that the overall trajectory of research, development, and application of information technology in libraries has been guided from the private sector.

"Megahype"

A second, related item is that information technology has been the object of considerable hype. Theodore Roszak has best captured the "megahype" of the Information Society in his book, The Cult of Information. He states that "It is easy to conclude that because we have the ability to transmit more electronic bits more rapidly to more peoplle than ever before, we are making real cultural progress--and that the essence of that progress is information technology." He characterizes this outlook as a "widespread public cult" that is "filled with a mesmerizing glamour." [7] Again the education field provides an instructive bridge to the application of Rozak's idea to a public service. Douglas Sloan concludes that, touting computers as a boon to critical thinking, "educators have made no concerted effort to ask at what level, for what purposes, and in what ways the computer is educationally appropriate." Instead, their approach has been itself uncritical with competition to dream up innumerable ways to use computers to cash in on the bandwagon. [8]

Librarians have shared fully in the fulsome praise of computers and the benefits of their use. Familiar buzzwords abound in much of the literature:

* "Adult services librarians know that the idea of the world as a global village has become a reality in communications and economics, and that the library's role is to convert information resources into knowledge. …