Here’s the video of my talk at The Next Web in Amsterdam on Friday. I haven’t watched it because I don’t like watching me and neither should you. But I would be interested in your comments about what I’m feeling my way toward in this talk.
It’s about what I think is a change in how we think about the future.
The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)
Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:
It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.
But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.
When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.
And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.
I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.
Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.
The Boy Scouts are right: Be straight prepared. I’m looking out the window at what’s less like a blanket of snow and more like 5 stacked futons of snow. As quaint as a herniated disc.
Yet New England seems to be suffering the minimum amount of damage conceivable. What did we get right, especially compared with the freeze-in-your-car 1978 blizzard?
1. Weather forecasting has gotten much better. We were not taken by surprise.
2. We had appropriate plans in place. I heard, for example, that some local hospitals had arranged a pick-up service for medical personnel who otherwise couldn’t have gotten in to work. And a big hug and cup of warm cocoa to everyone working out in the cold to keep us safe. The nine most comforting words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
3. Our leaders are newly motivated not only by wisdom but also by fear. The price of being unprepared has gone up. I’m not saying our expectations are reasonable. We Americans generally don’t have a theory to explain why bad random things happen. ff afflicted by a natural disaster, we call a lawyer to sue the weather, the asteroid, someone. Still, it keeps our leaders on their toes.
4. It’s just snow. A lot of snow. You shovel it. You put on cleats once the sidewalks are walkable. For once in your life you don’t drive like a dick. It gets gray, black, and it melts. It’s just frozen water. got spring on our side. So, suck it, snow!
Taleb makes a point that challenges some pretty deep assumptions. Life, he says, really hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years:
Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.
Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different…
So, why, Taleb wonders, do we keep predicting that technology will radically transform our future? His answer:
Odds are that your imagination will be adding things to the present world. I am sorry, but this approach is exactly backward: the way to do it rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things that do not belong to the coming times.
I am not saying that new technologies will not emerge — something new will rule its day, for a while. What is currently fragile will be replaced by something else, of course. But this “something else” is unpredictable.
The excerpt doesn’t explain what Taleb means by “fragile,” which is the theme of his book apparently, but, after a digression critiquing hip technologists who are too technocratic and uncultured for his taste, he gives some examples. Paperwork was fragile, which we know because the Internet has removed so much of it. Shoe manufacturers are moving from over-engineered shoes to “shoes that replicate being barefoot.” The iPad et al. return us to the “Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take (sic) notes on a tablet. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand…”
I’m confused by his overall theme as expressed in this exceprt, since he uses Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell as examples of futurists who got it wrong, but they would have gotten it far wronger if they had predicted the future by subtraction. The very things Taleb hopes will be subtracted — “deleterious, unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding technology” — were by and large added during the past 150 years. Thus, predictions would have gone right if they had anticipated those additions. Presumably this is cleared up in the book itself.
But let’s go back to the passage I quoted at the beginning that argues that futurologists have tended to over-estimate the extent of change, and that life is pretty much as it always was.
Well, yes and no. At the highest levels of abstraction, Taleb is right: We still eat, shit, and fuck. We still talk with one another. Many of us still live in climates that shove our unclothed bodies out of homeostasis. We still have a system of specialization and economic exchange that lets you cook for me if I provide you with some compensation. So, yes, we eat together, wear clothes, and go to restaurants. We have not transcended our biology, our basic sociality, or our need for a culture and economy. Therefore we have not progressed?
Perhaps the problem is with using eating dinner in a nice restaurant as our example. Perhaps we might look at the systems by which Taleb is served his wine and artisanal cheese. If you can’t tell the difference between a basket and a truck, between a scythe and a thresher, between a root cellar and a refrigerated container vessel, between vassals and unionized farm workers, between planting last year’s seeds and genetically altering crops, between slavery and social mobility, then, yes, you’ll see no progress on your plate.
Ok, I admit that I’m not getting it. I look forward to reading his book.
The always-readworthy Jeremy Wagstaff has a delightful, brief essay that uses our profound ignorance of the quotidian life of the past as a reminder of just how awful we are at predicting — or envisioning — our future.
I also like Jeremy’s essay because I find that I am much more interested in histories of daily life than in broad, sweeping explanations. I consider my lack of broad sweepiness to be a weakness, so I’m not recommending it. But I’m fascinated by how different our lived lives are and have been. And will be.