Section 7.3. Network Culture


7.3. Network Culture

The Internet has shifted the landscape of informed decisions , but the impact is not entirely positive. For insight into the dark side, ask librarians. They'll tell you about students who never visit the library, but instead surf the web for a few good hits, with little appreciation for the authority, accuracy, currency, and quality of their sources. They'll lament the public's lack of appetite for Boolean search. They'll complain that scholarly networked databases and peer-reviewed journals sit untouched, while Google churns out fast food for the minds of the masses. Librarians are on the front lines of an invisible struggle over our information diet and, for better or worse, the scales are not tipping in their direction. In fact, according to Peter Lyman, a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems, it's already too late:

There's been a culture war between librarians and computer scientists.
And the war is over. Google won.[*]

[*] "Search for Tomorrow" by Joel Achenbach. Washington Post, February 15, 2004, p. D01. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A42885-2004Feb14?language=printer.

While I agree with Peter's framing of this upheaval as a culture war, I don't believe the battle lines cleanly divide librarians and computer scientists, and I'm positive it's not over. If we are to know the true nature of this conflict, we must not judge the book by its cover. A recent skirmish serves as case in point. In a Library Journal article, Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, defined the blog as:

[An] interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web.

After deriding the "blog people," Gorman then set his sights on "McGoogle":

Google is, in fact, the device that gives you thousands of "hits" (which may or may not be relevant) in no very useful order....Speed is of the essence to Google boosters...but, as with fast food, rubbish is rubbish, no matter how speedily it is delivered.

After reading this piece, one might write off the entire library profession as a bitter anachronism, but this would be a shame, for the words of Michael Gorman are at odds with the majority of librarians. In fact, many of us were horrified by this high-profile display of ignorance, and some librarian bloggers even called for his resignation.

This unfortunate episode exposed the true fault lines within librarianship, and these same divisions exist within most other communities and institutions in education, government, health, and business. This is not a contest between librarians and computer scientists, but an ongoing revolution in the definition of authority.

At one extreme, conservatives cling to traditional views and values, nostalgic for the totalitarian regimes of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopædia Britannica. In total opposition, liberals embrace the progressive decentralization of the blogosphere, where impious neologisms flourish and the truth is a virus of many colors. And in the middle, the silent majority suffers from information anxiety, trying to allocate trust in a maze of memes where networks supplant hierarchies and fact fades into opinion.

This is a revolution indeed, driven by the design of the Internet, the freedom of speech, and the will of the people. As Lawrence Lessig argues in The Future of Ideas, "the defining feature of the Internet is that it leaves resources free."[*] Its end-to-end architecture locates intelligence at the ends rather than the center, allowing for an innovation commons that's neutral with respect to applications and content.

[*] The Future of Ideas by Lawrence Lessig. Vintage (2002), p. 14.

In the 1990s, this level playing field served as catalyst for the most brilliant period of knowledge creation since the cultural and scientific revolutions of the Renaissance. And in this network culture that sports more web pages than people, we enjoy incredible access to free information. But with freedom comes responsibility, and with free information, finding is not only a right but a duty. In short, access changes the game.