Magazine article Information Today

Disintermediation Marches On

Magazine article Information Today

Disintermediation Marches On

Article excerpt

All automation is considered to be "disintermediation." Instead of having processes repeated by humans in distinct, repetitive acts, the analyst or programmer identifies the decision points in the process and translates them into machine instructions. Once learned, the machine can repeat the function endlessly (sometimes even annoyingly when poor analysis traps users in loops with no escape).

General usage, however, applies the term disintermediation to much larger scale situations, where the links removed from the chain may be corporate departments, entire professions, or even economic categories (wholesale or retail). These days, online operations continue to put pressure on traditional structures and seek to eliminate the distance between producer and consumer or between author and reader. Of course, problems may arise-and new traps emergewhen the online process ignores some of the finer, even hidden, points in the creative process. For example, in the traditional publishing system, the author has pride of place, name even above the title, but there are still editors, fact-checkers, reviewers, layout artists, indexers, abstractors, and catalogers (or are they called metadata-ers now?). And that doesn't cover all the other possible handlers: printers, jobbers, outlets, etc. And, oh, yes-I almost forgot-publishers and librarians.

Not all of these people could properly be called creators-though I personally have a vested interest in editors (ahem) getting some creative credit, particularly when they originated the ideas for the material in the first place (double ahem). Most of these people, however, add value to the final product. While smart design of online processes can probably replace a number of traditional functions, only careful attention to the entire existing process can ensure smart design. Often those who design online processes glory in the efficiencies and advantages their systems offer over traditional services so that they can ignore the diminished quality caused by the loss of some traditional functions. The problems can worsen if the diminutions take time to emerge, while the improvements leap forward immediately. For example, advocates and designers working for the open access movement in scholarly communication-a movement for which I and probably most other librarians kneel in prayer-sometimes follow paths that leave structured peer review, editorial evaluation and emendation, integration with the historical flow of science, verifiable integrity of content, and preservation itself as "also-rans" in their design work.

Building Effective Systems

When this kind of disintermediation occurs and puts content quality at risk, all too often traditional suppliers use the problems to urge reactionary returns to the ancient ways. Well, that's not going to happen. That fleet has sailed. That fleet has sunk. We must work to make the new systems effective, to build systems that incorporate the efficiencies and user-appeal of new online processes but that transform and translate missing or overlooked quality elements into the new processes.

The information industry is not alone in facing this challenge. As we went to press, news sources and trade presses were discussing internal memos leaking out of Mighty Microsoft. …

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