Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Whether to Wireless

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Whether to Wireless

Article excerpt

Believe it or not, technology is not my hobby. So you might imagine my blase attitude when I saw a commercial the other day extolling the virtues of wireless classrooms. It said that students could access the Internet, hold discussions among themselves, and chat with the instructor. They could even make dates to see a movie. The instructor could show presentations and edit them on the fly. The gist was that they were trying to show how wireless networking was like a brave new world, or like the Jetsons. But in the back of my mind there was this little voice saying, "Uh, can't we do all that now without wireless?"

If you're a habitual reader of this column you know I can be a little skeptical at times. I prefer to think of it as highly critical in the scientific reasoning sense, as in "show me the money"-or rather, the data! Given the classroom scenario above, what is the benefit of doing things with wireless as opposed to wired? What are the costs of installing antenna ports and wireless network cards versus using wire that's probably already there? How do advantages outweigh disadvantages, if there are any?

If cost differences aren't significant, and if students learn the same either way-or in the case of libraries, patrons are served the same way-then why make the change? Or why not? What do wireless-based services offer over current wire-based services? How do we go about figuring out where things stand? Well, you know me ... my columns often turn to the topic of mental models and how we conceptualize technology to understand and make sense of it.

Where's the Benefit?

Sure, wireless networking is touted as the "anytime, anyplace" technology, similar to cell phones. And I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant about owning one of those early on. But I eventually got a cell phone for "emergencies" and now I use it for convenience. In doing so I had to overcome my mental model of using land-based phones: I felt that, other than emergencies, there's nothing so important that it can't wait until I get home. And, hello! Look at all those accidents (or near misses) on the highways caused by people who get distracted talking on cell phones while driving!

As part of a post-World War II generation, I think I'm pulled by both my desire to want more, and by my fear to protect what I have. On one hand I tend to believe that all this technology-driven convenience is a bunch of nonsense-what does it matter if my friends have to wait a few days, instead of a few minutes, when I take a picture on vacation? On the other hand, I do dig the technology! I don't have a camera-enabled cell phone, but I do have a digital camera that I use to take pictures so I can put them up on the Web to share with my family and friends. But, should we go with wireless (or even the Web, for that matter) just because it's cool?

OK, at this point I have to say I'm probably acting a little like my father. He, by the way, has a fairly unshakable mental model of traditional banking in the face of technology-that of a vault where his treasure is kept. He deposits a check once a month, takes out as much cash as he needs for 4 weeks, writes checks only for bills and emergencies, and leaves the rest to accrue interest. He just shakes his head when he hears how many times I go to an ATM, that I do all my transactions online or with a debit card, and haven't written checks (or "balanced" my account) in a couple of years. He won't be persuaded to change unless his banking model (knowledge, experiences, and beliefs) is altered. My own mental model of telephony was shaken only after I saw the benefits of the convenience of having a cell phone at my beck and call. (Errr, excuse the pun!)

So, I'm wondering what it will take for me, and others, to see the benefit of wireless? Is it just a matter of trying it and getting used to the convenience? The table below represents my thoughts on patron expectations based on their mental models of library-based technologies. …

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