The Valerie Vaughan Forum

"My opinions may change, but not the fact that I am right."

Should I Look for information on the Internet? Before you decide, just say "Know"

A Librarian's View, by Valerie Vaughan

Everywhere you turn, you are being told that Information Technology is the wave of the future and that there will be more widespread use of the Internet.

"The Information Superhighway has brought us to a unique and exciting point in history. "
"The Internet will give equal access to information for everyone on the planet."
"Join the online gold rush. Turn on to the Web."
Many people do not realize that these statements are simply opinions that have not been fully examined. They are jumping on the bandwagon of information technology and joining the "online gold rush" without thinking about justification, purpose, implications, or effects. Deeply imbedded is an assumption, the automatic acceptance of advanced technology as a signature of progress, which seems to require no proof or argument; the validity is assumed, understood, and ratified by convention. The following is intended to challenge these assumptions and inspire some independent thought.

No one should assume that I am "against computers." I have been working with them for a long time. I was writing in Fortran in the 60s, Pet Basic and Apple Basic in the 70s, DOS in the 80s, and then all the rest of it, including getting my Master's degree in Information Science in 1992. I've got eight years experience working with computers in libraries, familiarity with all the common programs used by librarians, online databases, online catalogs, and the Internet. I've also been teaching in schools and colleges since 1970, homeschooling my own kids since 1982, and doing computer instruction in libraries since 1989, so I know a little something about how people learn. In addition to library work, I run a homebased business where I do computer typesetting, conversion, and layout for several publishers.

When I was first hired as director of a local library, I had to bring a completely manual (nonautomated) institution into the 20th century by installing computers. But I didn't just turn the computer equipment on and "let her rip." I attempted to ease the transition of integration, maintaining a sensitivity to how "the computer" was altering many internal patterns of functioning in the library, as well as how these changes were affecting patrons and staff who were not computer literate.

I am mentioning my background so that nobody will accuse me of being an uneducated Luddite. I've had plenty of opportunities to appreciate the benefits of automation, but I am also very clear about the limits, drawbacks, and compromises. I've had to come to terms with several glaring realities, like the fact that computers do not save time, money, or paper, and that they have created more problems than they solved. My training and experience have shown me that computerizing must be handled cautiously and with forethought, rather than being embraced with total abandon to the Gee Whiz exaltation of technology.

Time and again, I've been struck by the obvious disparity between my negative experience of the new electronic technologies and the positive determinism which is the cheerleading fantasy rampant in Technology MegaHype, the assuming attitude that we must use technology because it is there, and that we must remake our institutions to accommodate it; that all of this must happen because it is good for us, and that we have no choice. All around me, I've observed evidence that was in direct contradiction to the idealistic hype about computerization, yet people seemed to be oblivious in their acceptance, not questioning or discussing the Faustian bargains being made.

Even assuming the technophiles' predictions are correct ("Information technology is the wave of the future and if you don't join it you'll be washed away in the tide"), let us imagine ourselves living in that sterile world of bookless libraries, paperless offices, limitless information, uncontrolled communication, and teacherless classrooms. Aside from speed and size, what do we gain? How exactly does any of this improve the quality of life? What is the wholistic view of its impact? Who benefits most, and to what end? Cui bono? None of the electronic technologies would have gotten as far as they have, but for their utility as pillars of the consuming society.

One of the perils of modern technology is that it is invented to be sold. We're told that we need this stuff. The twentieth century is littered with examples of technology being promoted without first being inspired by a real need. Something gets invented and then entrepreneurs scramble to find a use for it so it can get promoted and sold. ("Gee, we have all this great technology and information systems, let's try to do something with it.") The standard approach has been to add technology first and then figure out what problems you've got. Then, we are told that the solution to the problems is still more (upgraded) technology. There are no controls on technological invention. It is corporate driven and created to be marketed. And it takes away our freedom when we buy into it. It narrows our options to a set of preprogrammed choices, and it removes us from the sensory complexity of the lived world, the very source of true learning.

The computer represents only the latest version of a long line of "control technologies" built to service the domination mode of industrializing societies. Computers are also the first technology almost exclusively controlled by profit making corporations, whose sales goals rarely coincide with educational effectiveness, much less with the general well being of mankind. Technology is not neutral. Technological systems have inherent political qualities. The success of technology has so thoroughly pervaded our thought processes that we have abdicated to technology the very duty to question it. Whoever determines the questions, determines the answers. Technology does not ask, "Do we need these things?" or "Is it good?" All it can ask is, "Does it work?"

What I am trying to call attention to here is the fact that new technologies are introduced without a full discussion of how they are going to affect the workplace, social relationships, political relationships, human health, nature and our conception of nature, and our conceptions of ourselves. Every technology that comes along affects these things. Cars, for example, have changed our society drastically. Had there been a debate about the effects of cars (prior to our "acceptance" of them), would we have asked vital questions like, do we want the entire landscape to be paved over? Do we want society to move into concrete urban jungles? Do we want one resource (oil) to dominate political relationships in the world? (The Gulf War resulted from our thoughtless "choice" of the car a hundred years ago.)

Having rushed without forethought into the Information Age, there are numerous consequences of computerization that we have only barely begun to realize. Let me explain with an example you may be familiar with. If you go to a local library, how do you find information? If the online catalog is "down" or if there is a long line waiting to use the computers, is there a backup alternative? Are you able to use the "old" card catalog? Do you know how to use it? Because of space limitations, costs, and pressures to modernize, many libraries have been able to create "access to computers" only by making their card catalogs nonaccessible (moving it to the basement, for instance). Or by failing to update the cards ever since they computerized back in 1984. Or by eliminating the cards altogether, in some cases burning them as part of the festivities celebrating the new computer. Not to mention replacing the librarian's important job of teaching people how to acquire knowledge with showing them how to fiddle with function keys.

You can call me old fashioned or accuse me of having a doomsday mentality, but I am simply being realistic and practical. And I am not using examples from libraries just because it's my own personal field of experience. Few people are aware that it is libraries, not any mutated offspring of Bill Gates Incorporated, that have the longest history of addressing the real problems and negative consequences of information technology. Libraries were among the first institutions (after the military) to embrace all of the new information technologies. Librarians were also among the first professionals (after the nerds) to become information scientists. As providers within a public service context, librarians in libraries have been dealing for decades with the management realities and day to day problems of transition into the Age of Information.

If you read some of the latest commentaries by social scientists and cultural historians (see Bibliography below), you will realize that general opinion is finally beginning to catch up with what librarians have long known: There is a dawning realization that the development of our technology is way far "ahead" of our ability to understand and manage it. Understanding lags behind production. True meaning requires time consuming thought, and the pace of modern technology works against affording us the time to think. Jumping into more and faster technological innovations without weighing the realities is thoughtless. There are serious issues to be addressed and digested so that we can balance this disparity.

Take, for instance, our national educational dilemma and President Clinton's "solution" that every classroom in American must be connected to the information superhighway. I question the assumption underlying this simplistic prescription for redesigning American education with technology, namely that all you do is put kids in front of computers and they'll instantly turn on to learning. When TV was first introduced, we heard the same argument and were told it would revolutionize schools. Learning takes place in the context of human relationship; computers do next to nothing to foster relationship. The reason is not because we think so highly of computers, but that technology has caused us to think rather less of humans.

The electronic environment is a medium designed for left brain activity and technical dominance. Human relationship cannot thrive on computer, which is why no one is going to learn the vital skills of human interaction on the Internet. There are those who argue that it provides a "new social setting," an environment for informal dialogue for individuals who would otherwise have no access to others and no place to express their original thoughts. The real question to ask is why are these people so lonely in the first place? This is a large problem which is not going to be solved by having an unregulated medium (the Internet) for lonely people to boost their self esteem, imagining they are relevant because they can say anything they want.

Let's get real about this, folks. Besides providing yet another marketing tool, why else do you think the corporate world is the biggest promoter of the Internet? Because it keeps the hoi polloi isolated and busy with distractions of self involvement. It serves to dissipate any real group involvement, substituting a place to jerk off excess ego energy which might otherwise be put into real communication and true revolutionary change.

There is one very serious consequence of our headlong dive into the Age of Information which is rarely discussed, except by concerned intellectuals and education theorists (including librarians). That is the problem of intellectual preservation, how to address the transience and fundamental ephemerality of electronic information. The public may hear of this as an issue of censorship or copyright, or perhaps as occasional events where information is deleted or there is a breach in computer security. But the concept involved here is much more deep and profound. Who decides what information gets preserved? Who defines and shapes a society's stock of knowledge? Who decides what is valuable and worth saving, and what is at best temporarily in fashion, but not necessarily worth passing on to future generations? What the Internet represents is total abandonment of any critical faculties required to define lasting knowledge. This is hardly what we need, since modern "culture" (and I use the term loosely) has already been homogenized to the level of lowest common denominator.

At the risk of offending those with pseudo democratic notions, I have to state the obvious: some ideas are better than others. Some are worth saving, and some aren't. Why do you think we read Shakespeare, just because he's dead, white, and male? No, aside from the helpful fact that librarians have preserved his works, we read Shakespeare because his message is enduring, it addresses the perpetual human condition. More specifically, it speaks of the reality of life's tragic nature, something which Americans spend most of their time and money avoiding. No other civilized nation is so preoccupied with make believe, pretending, and fantasy. And since reality tends to be insistent, we demand fantasy on all levels, which is why we keep the tube turned on day and night (TV or computer monitor, it makes no difference). Fantasy is ultimately less satisfying than reality; like giving salt water to a thirsty man, it only increases our desire for the authentic.

Someone recently confronted me with, "What about the latest ideas? Isn't the Internet the best place to find them?" My answer is, there are much more reliable ways to find out about almost anything. When I look for information in books and respectable journals, I don't have any doubt about who wrote what. It is signed with real names, not some secretive, electronic, injoke pseudonym like you find on the Internet. It is also something that has gone through the editing mill, so there are no careless misspellings like those that abound on the Internet. I don't waste time looking through a hundred Internet sites and verifying which versions might be imitations, jokes, or partially deleted. There are plenty of traditional ways of gaining information that work perfectly fine. Good writers and publishers don't need the Internet to function, whereas, without input from sources like good writers and publishers, the Internet would just be a bunch of electronic pulses with no content. As it stands now, the Internet is mainly a marketing medium being exploited by anyone with something to sell.

While technophiles revel in the "freedom of expression" allowed by the Internet, the question of intellectual responsibility remains unanswered. In an electronic environment, texts are constantly rewritten, misinformation initiates rumor, data can be distorted or purged or updated, and paper versions of originals are thrown away. What is the possibility of maintaining the integrity of the archival record, and whose responsibility will it be? There is no assurance that your copy is the same as mine, nor that either is the original, unmodified form. What we are talking about here is the long term survival of information. And if you don't think that's a problem, just ask a typical computer generation kid if he's heard of (fill in the blank with the name of a literary classic). He's likely to tell you, oh yeah, that's the (name of a movie or a computer game).

Another assumption I question is what's behind the great rallying cry of the technophiles, "demand for information access." We already live in a culture with plenty of information access .... 17,000 newspapers, 12,000 periodicals, 27,000 video rental outlets, 400 million television sets, 500 million radios (not including those in automobiles), 40,000 new book titles a year, 260,000 billboards, and (thanks to the computer), 60 billion pieces of junk mail per year. We already have access to excess. We don't need access to any more information; what we need is to learn discrimination (or reciprocally, to offer guidance) to deal with the overload that is already present. In the onslaught of "total, unrestricted access" such as that available on the Internet, critical faculties have become dulled and inoperable. Where are the monitoring and filtering mechanisms that cull knowledge from large, unrestricted megabytes of arbitrary raw data?

Not until the advent of the computer did we become confused about the meaning of information; we did not confuse it with knowledge. Information via computer is just another commodity; it is not knowledge, nor does it create wisdom. Information is bits and pieces of discrete data, fragmented, particular, and often subject to change. Knowledge is coherent and structured, usually with enduring value. Information is acquired by being told. Knowledge is acquired by thinking things through and by seeking meaning and content. Knowledge may be restructured by adding new information, but new information is not necessary for new knowledge to be acquired. Information can become knowledge only when it is assimilated, used, and shared among human beings. Access to information, by itself, is not going to make anybody smarter. The only thing it teaches is a false sense of knowledge power.

If you think that information access will enhance knowledge and the ability to learn, then show me the proof. Give me evidence that disproves what any librarian knows, that the ability of our young people to research a topic or perform critical thinking has decreased in direct proportion to the advancement of information technology. You will search in vain to find statistics of how the SAT scores, reading skills, and general literacy in the U.S. have increased during the computer revolution. No, it's not information technology, it's people (like teachers, librarians, or other education guides), that help us achieve knowledge and wisdom. It is through wisdom that we keep the world from going to hell; technology only allows us to get there faster.

I am not arguing against computers in schools or libraries. I am arguing against mindless acceptance, against thoughtless acquiescence to "demands for access to information technology," and the gullible fascination with technological wizardry which distracts us from considering truly important problems in education (and life) that exist now and have always existed, even B.C. (before computers). Any real problems that the schools cannot solve without computers will not be solved with them. And that statement holds true for problems in any arena of life. In our government, our economy, our libraries, problems that cannot be solved by people will not be solved by computers. By real problems, I am referring, for example, to the traditional task of schools teaching children how to behave in groups. The classroom is intended to connect the individual with others in a shared learning experience, to demonstrate the value of group cohesion. This is especially needed now because modern technology has splintered communities and the family unit, and because the entire thrust of mass media is to isolate us even further into private experience. How is a piece of electronic equipment going to teach sharing? If computers really serve to bring group cohesiveness, how come we aren't all holding hands and solving serious social problems?

I question the way schools have accepted computer technology without evaluation. Educators have made no concerted effort to ask at what level, for what purposes, and in what ways the computer is educationally appropriate. Instead, there is just competition to dream up innumerable ways to use computers. Or to "embrace" them as a way to artificially hike up poor self image and status (the stereotypically dull librarian or boring teacher becomes instantly professional with the click of a mouse).

They say, "If it works, don't fix it." Libraries have been offering information access since long, long before the advent of the computer. The total automation of the information process in libraries hasn't just "fixed" something that already worked, it took away the tools we already had. Calculators destroy the ability to calculate. Recording devices destroy the ability to pay attention and use our memories. Spellcheckers destroy the ability to spell. And yet people want children to learn to use computers before they are developmentally capable of reading, adding, thinking logically, remembering facts, or sitting still in a classroom?

I challenge anyone to show me where, in the typical posed images presented to us by the Infohyped media (those glossy photos of people gathered around a computer), there is any evidence of real human interaction or that the human need for group cohesion is being addressed. These images are doubly absurd because the computer is a solo instrument. (How many times have you actually witnessed a group of people sitting together at a computer?) In my daily experience at the library, what I see is single people slumped with that glazed stare. The one sign that they are actually alive and "interacting" with their environment is a slight twitching movement where their hand touches the mouse.

I challenge anyone to prove that the indiscriminate free for all on the Internet is fostering true group spirit or is anything more than collective monologuing. Don't show me how many sites are "connected," I want to see the statistics on how computers have made real people more connected in spirit, how they've brought any of us more together and more able to cooperate, how the people in our society have become more unified. Show me how crime and racism have decreased since the beginning of the Information Age. Don't give me promises that the medium of information technology can be reformed and has potential to be put to good uses. They tried to put over that utopian fantasy with television back in the 60s, remember? The Internet is not an example of freedom of information; it is simply total lack of control. You may think I am being extreme, so once again I will give you a simple example from my typical daily experience as a librarian.

Here we have a library, which has some money to spend. They consider themselves modern, so they abandon the old methods. Instead of purchasing an up to date encyclopedia and other book sources, they've decided to invest in an Internet connection. And instead of providing educational classes on how to use the library and to understand the basics of research (like simple alphabetical order or the Dewey Decimal system), they've got the reference librarian doing Internet access and online catalog classes. One day, a kid comes to the library because he has a report to do on Mad Cow disease. He doesn't know how to research the topic (remember, they stopped providing library instruction), and he has been fed nothing but the InfoTech rhetoric, so he goes to the Internet to look for information. To the typical modern day, non library educated student, the arduous task of "searching for information" means typing "Mad Cow disease" and punching the Enter button. Up on the screen comes a list of over 200 sites discussing Mad Cow Disease. Where to start? Hmmm... Well, it's not like a reputable medical encyclopedia where there's discrimination about what gets included, so how can he tell what is important, valuable, widely accepted knowledge, or not? He starts arbitrarily reading what's offered at various sites (arbitrariness is the working concept on the Internet), and discovers the first eight sites consist of nothing but jokes about Mad Cows. At the ninth site, he isn't quite sure whether it's a joke or not. The tenth one is a highly technical, specialized, and unintelligible report by a Ph.D. By now, an hour has passed, and his mother's arrived to pick him up. Luckily, she's from the B.C. generation and she marches him straight over to the reference librarian to get help. It's the mother who asks all the questions, the kid is at a total loss about how to go about presenting his request. So much for the amazing "demand for information access." This story is completely true, and sad to say, very typical. What I can't tell you is all the stories that didn't have such a relatively happy ending, all the kids I couldn't help because they didn't know what to do and gave up, or turned in a totally misinformed report, based on what they'd found on the glorious Information Highway.

The technophiles are fully aware of the problems of organizing the anarchy of the Internet. I refer you to a series of articles in the March 1997 Scientific American, which describe how getting good results with Internet searching is "less than ideal" and beyond our present technical capabilities. If you read carefully, you will realize what the authorities are actually admitting, that humans can organize and search information much better than computers can.

We ought to be appalled at the mindless acceptance of new technologies. There is a striking lack of discrimination about the actual effective usefulness of information technology; no questioning of where, when or how it might be appropriate or inappropriate to to use it. More technology is not always better. Sometimes progress is worth stopping. At least long enough to go back and read the directions. Or ask important questions like, why are we doing this? Henry David Thoreau had an answer for this: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end."

What I say is, there are situations where increased or upgraded technology is superfluous, there are times when computerizing is inappropriate. For example, at my library, I use a "fossilized" old program called Librarian's Helper on an equally "ancient" 286 computer to produce catalog cards, bibliographies, and to perform related necessary procedures. Several local computer "professionals" have criticized me for keeping such an outdated system. My answer is, it works fine, it does the job, it's simple, cheap and conforms to the Library's needs and budget, it stands alone from the network connections so it is not affected by downtime. The library, the patrons, and the staff would not benefit from an updated program with more bells and whistles.

I can cite dozens of examples where information access can be facilitated by the intelligent use of available resources and is not necessarily improved by the wholesale adaptation to latest developments. For both technophiles and technophobes, the best (and only?) way to avoid the negative effects of computing is to maintain skills and resources that are independent of the computer.

What I have done at my library is to blend our current and minimal technological facilities with our nonautomated methods and resources to make our entire collection and those of other libraries accessible to our patrons, all within the context of our current budget, staff capabilities, and user demands. Educating and adjusting patrons to just a few changes perpetrated by the computer takes time. This kind of wholistic approach of fitting the computer into the already functional situation is much better for all concerned than the typical method of buying a lot of advanced equipment, plugging it in, "discovering" the discrepancies it's created, and then making everything else in the system (including the people) adjust to the technology. Or trying to solve the problems created by technology by investing in even more of it.

Everyone is aware of how many jobs have been dissolved by technology. The counter argument is usually, "Oh, but look how many new jobs it's created." (Just think of all those wonderful data entry jobs!) Sure, a computer can calculate quickly, but only after the human spends mindless hours of drudgery entering data. I should know, I do a lot of it myself. The fact is that there is an exorbitant level of hidden costs of extra employee time spent in trouble shooting in the realm of computers. I should know, I do a lot of it. So does everyone. And what is the "solution" we are offered? More technology, in the form of a program that employers can purchase to spy on how much time their workers spend putzing around in the amazing electronic environment.

Information advocates may speak volumes about the benefits of access, but these are the realities of implementation. I say, look at what is really happening, not the hype. Take, for example, the local library where I work, which has provided several computer stations for public access to the online catalog. I can tell you that all I hear, over and over, is complaints. Patrons want to know where the good old card catalog is, because they prefer it. Instead of helping people find books, I spend about half my time trying to help people deal with their frustrations of searching on the online catalog and databases. The computers did not ease anyone's workload; the Jones has been forced to hire more reference librarians just to handle constant assistance with computer search, calming people down when lines are busy and won't connect, monitoring young children who start pounding arbitrarily on the keyboards, and preventing amateur patron hackers who try to fool around with the systems.

At the present time there are no restrictions whatsoever on who or what can be on the Internet. What that means is that there are a great number of things on the Internet that no parent in their right mind would ever allow their child to be exposed to, not just incorrect and questionable information, but pornography of the vilest sort (somewhere near 50% of what's on the Internet is sex related, the statistics vary according to personal taste and morals), not to mention information of an illegal nature. In a recent event at our local junior high, the entire school was evacuated because of a homemade bomb in a locker, a bomb which police said had the potential to kill many people. The 13 year old student who built that bomb followed directions he downloaded from the Internet.

There are many people who would argue that restricting the Internet would be a form of censorship. Is it censorship when our schools fail to provide access to x rated pornography and instructions for bomb assembly? Can't people tell the difference between outright censorship and intelligent, respectful monitoring of supervised education?

I have brought up only a few of the issues that should be considered in the discussion of electronic information technology and "computerizing." There are plenty more where those came from. What's really scary is that there are even more that we can't even anticipate. Luckily, a few intelligent minds have addressed these possibilities. Any of the following should be required reading for those who wish to develop a balanced and objective view of the new Age of Information. Just say "Know."

Steven Lubar, Info Culture.

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology.

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information.
Mark Slouka, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High Tech Assault on Reality.
Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.
Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.

Richard Wurman, Information Anxiety.
Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club,
 ..... and of course, anything by Henry David Thoreau

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