Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections of a Thomas Frey Presentation: The Future of Libraries and Cities

This month, the Fraser Valley Regional Library sponsored a day of exploration with futurist Thomas Frey called The Future of Libraries and Cities. His presentation and the ensuing discussions were focused on technological developments and their impact on libraries, cities, education and, to a lesser degree, work.

Frey painted a picture of the future that is laden with technological advancements that continue to transform how human beings interact with the world. Driverless cars, 3D printers that are able to produce real houses and food on-demand, body scanners that create custom-fit clothing, smart dust that can be distributed across land masses for data collection, drones to deliver our take-out pizzas, and the manufacture of replacement human tissues and organs are only some of the examples that populate our future. There was, however, a notable absence of critical commentary on these developments, suggesting that all of these developments and inventions will enhance our lives as humans. The picture Frey depicted felt... inevitable. Yet, Frey asserts that by anticipating the future we can act today to change how that future looks. He challenged us to think of how we, as community stakeholders, are going to prepare for the future.

There is no doubt that anticipating and preparing for the future is a healthy and responsible exercise for library and community leaders. Certainly, Frey gave his audience ample material to wrestle with. While he frequently posed the question of whether these developments are 'good' or 'bad', participants were left to draw their own conclusions. There was a feeling of disquiet around my own table as participants pondered over the implications of a world that is engaged in an accelerating and relentless adoption of new technology. We ascertained that much of this unease stemmed from the uncertainties around what it means to be human, what makes culture, and what will, truly, benefit the human condition. In addition, we wondered if this road we are heading down will be at the great expense of our relationship with nature.

In an initial exercise, Frey challenged library and community stakeholders to think about what 'systems' are used today that are not likely to serve us well in the future. As an example, Frey suggested that the Roman Numeral system became an impediment to developing higher mathematical functions because of its intrinsic limitations. While it is not that difficult to identify systems within libraries that may no longer serve (classification as one possibility), there was little room for discussion around the human resource issues associated with shifts in 'systems'.

More troubling is the issue over the nature of work and how technologies, designed to relieve humans of "menial" work, will interact with our basic need to have a purpose. While it is easy to suggest that new jobs will emerge that have not even been thought of, it is important for us to consider the legacies that we create today, to serve this future world. Our table wondered, just because we can, should we?

The future, as described by Thomas Frey, was remarkably void of two things, spirituality and social responsibility. It remains unclear as to how the technological developments, forecasted by Frey will help the human condition by reducing depression, anxiety, poverty, and, even, the disenfranchised, as a whole. Granted, time was short and the issues were complex but it would have been very helpful for attendees to explore these issues.

It seemed that another day would have enabled participants to actively brainstorm and tease out the social implications of emerging technology. One of the questions participants were challenged to answer was, "What are the core pieces of culture and community necessary to maintain a vital community in the future?" One question we needed to add was "What does technology do to our connection to the environment and how we interact with the natural world?" The innovations presented in Frey's future suggest that we maintain an exploitative attitude towards the natural world while seeking more sophisticated ways of creating 'things' and manipulating nature. As a result, people will need higher and higher levels of skill and knowledge that must be continually updated.

Perhaps, as an unintended result, his presentation did spurn some of us to really think about our values and what it is that brings richness to our daily lives. Interestingly, the consensus at our table was that "richness" comes from personal connections and tangible engagement with our communities through activities that require a physical presence - fairs, art shows, theatres, open houses, parties, physical recreation, eating together, etc. How communities absorb the impact of emerging technologies and continue to provide people with a connection to each other, in a physical sense, may be an incredible challenge. Libraries emerge as a place that bridges the technological universe with the physical. Frey provided a shopping list of ideas of how libraries could participate and be meaningful in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology. However, the costs of "keeping up" while providing services to the varied needs of a community remain a notable obstacle. Will communities have the foresight to heavily invest in libraries as platforms of community activity? If current practices can act as a predictor, it does not seem likely unless significant action is taken by library and community leaders.

Further complicating the choices that we must make as a society, is the evolving nature of work and education. The rising costs of education, combined with human resource costs is already generating a need to restructure education. We are moving from one-size-fits-all physical classrooms to rapid-fire, immediate, online and 'teacherless" modes of instruction. In Frey's depictions, people will seek training through different mechanisms that suit their needs as students who cannot afford the time or the money for "traditional" post-secondary instruction. Ericsson Networked Society's video, Future of Learning, suggests that access to information and attending schools are no longer intrinsicly tied together. The role of the teacher is now focused on showing students how to ask questions because, with a connected planet, the answers are everywhere. Knewton, for example, is designed to create a personalized learning "platform" that is based on the needs and interests of the students. It does this by figuring out how a student learns and tailoring his/her education based on the data generated by the student's activities and performance. Many other organizations are also challenging the satus quo of teaching practice and more loom on the horizon. The message is clear, if we do not change the way we educate ourselves, we cannot be flexible to the "surprises" that lurk around the corners. We need to be adaptable in order to be effective at work and durable when things do not go as planned.

In tandem with education, work will be performed in increasingly piecemeal, or project-based formats, reshaping our notion of a 'workday'. Employers will exercise immense control over work by using collectives of trained people that they tap into on an as-needed basis. People, in turn, will be compelled to educate themselves in the same way. Employers will seek very skilled individuals because more menial work will be performed in more cost-effective and automated ways. Already, the costs of real-estate has prompted companies like HSBC to encourage staff to work "from home". Frey suggested that libraries could provide space for this new army of officeless workers in light of the fact that most people find working from their homes distracting and isolated. Ironically, this shift merely offloads the cost of housing employees from the private sector to the employees themselves and to the public purse.

An article in the spring issue of UBC's Trek* magazine highlighted a project to develop a simple method of making drinking water safe for Haitians. Despite the application of many impressive filtration methods, researchers discovered that putting contaminated water in clear plastic bottles and allowing them time on hard surfaces in direct sunlight was an effective and brilliantly simple way of treating the water. It makes one wonder if the most effective systems for ensuring the vitality and vibrarancy of the human race live in seemingly simple solutions. Certainly Neil Postman, author of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, might have thought so:

"We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that culture may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms."**

There is enormous potential for libraries to become places where communities can untangle emerging issues associated with technological innovation. This can be done in many ways including providing space for discussion, sharing, experimentation, creation, and production. However, those working in libraries must be intellectually and technologically nimble so that they can act proactively in the storms of change.

While library administrators and city councilors work to create their long-range plans, it is absolutely critical that library professionals, at all levels, discuss and define the characteristics and skills required for emerging library staff. How are they to be educated? Trained? Inspired? There is no end to technological change and library staff cannot rely on their past success as a predictor for future success. Quite simply, our attachment to the book will not serve us well in the world that lies ahead but an understanding of technology will.

*Good, M. (2012 Spring/Summer). "The Water School". Trek, 31, 24-27.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 70.


Phil said...

It sounds like an interesting day but, ultimately, a little frustrating. I wonder if the presenter could have benefited from reading Information Ecologies by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day. It gives a good introduction to the dangers of accepting "systems" as a de facto structure.

norm c. barry said...

I enjjoyed your article/blog Ms Christina. You are an informative & enjoyable writer. A great article for submission to Popular Science Magazine. They had a great article on the high tech Library of the Future this past year. I teach technology as it relates to computing & change is interesting as well as too fast for some humans, too slow ( medical advances) for others. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This is a interesting Reading is always good thing it gives strength to mind for innovation This subject you have chosen it is great. Thanks for the post...!
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