Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Thinking in Policy Terms

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Thinking in Policy Terms

Article excerpt

Technology is a lot more fun than policy. Most library technology people probably find it a lot more interesting as well. But library technology does not operate in a vacuum. Technology and policy have always interacted, in the library field as elsewhere. Those interactions have become more complex and need to be more visible.

This issue will show some of the ways that technology, policy, and libraries interact. You need to consider library technology in a policy framework. Don't expect easy answers: Most policy-technology relationships are messy.

Policy above Technology?

Consider these words from Cory Doctorow, a technology aficionado and science fiction writer who also represents the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of many non-governmental groups concerned with policy and technology:

   The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years
   are about policy. It's about realizing that all the really hard
   problems--free expression, copyright, due process, social
   networking--may have technical dimensions, but they aren't
   technical problems. The next twenty years are about using our
   technology to affirm, deny, and rewrite our social contracts: All
   the grandiose visions of e-democracy, universal access to human
   knowledge, and (God help us all) the Semantic Web, are dependent
   on changes in the law, in the policy, in the sticky,
   non-quantifiable elements of the world. We can't solve them with
   technology: The best we can hope for is to use technology to enable
   the human interaction that will solve them.

   On that note: I have a special request to the toolmakers of 2004:
   Stop making tools that magnify and multiply awkward social
   situations ("A total stranger asserts that he is your friend: click
   here to tell a reassuring lie; click here to break his heart!")
   ("Someone you don't know very well has invited you to a party: click
   here to advertise whether or not you'll be there!") ("A 'friend' has
   exposed your location, down to the meter, on a map of people in his
   social network, using this keen new location-description
   protocol--on the same day that you announced that you were
   leaving town for a week!"). I don't need more "tools" like that,
   thank you very much. (1)

While Doctorow's examples and primary concerns have little to do with library technology, his overall thrust is central to this issue of Library Technology Reports. Those who disagreed with Doctorow--and most people commenting on these paragraphs took issue with him--fall into two general categories. Some people think technology will solve all problems, and that the problems cited by Doctorow aren't important. Others say technology and policy have always been intertwined.

Take Doctorow's first paragraph. Remove the first two sentences and the first clause in the fourth sentence (from "The next twenty years" to the colon). You now have a cogent statement of why you need to consider policy as part of any library technology. Technology provides tools. Policy provides context to make tools work to improve the human condition.

Frequently Political But Not Always Partisan

Policy may be political, but the politics don't always break along party lines or other traditional lines. With copyright, for example, Democratic office-holders tend to be at least as protective of extreme copyright as Republicans.

Policy issues that most affect libraries and technology can result in strange coalitions. Libertarians, evangelical Christians, and the most liberal groups may unite on one side of a policy issue--the same groups that are at one another's throats on another issue. Libraries and publishers, traditional allies, find themselves at odds over technology policies.

Don't expect to see "Republican" or "Democrat" and "liberal" or "conservative" used much in the remaining chapters. Those labels don't seem to matter much when policy and technology interact. …

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