Thursday, November 26, 2009

Are We Getting Stupider or What?

In one of the long-standing intellectual pillars of publishing, the Atlantic Monthly has recently came out with an article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? which continues the debate whether the computer age has indeed resulted in our over-reliance on compact, readily-available information.

As Nicholas Carr believes, we’re simply decoding information as we scan text on the web. For probably many of us like him, deep reading of densely formulated text has become a struggle. But here’s another worry that Carr ponders: the web’s simplification of information decoding has ultimately reduced our ability to think deeply as well. Our brains are so used to reading short blog posts or text messages under 140 characters that we’ve no longer the time nor patience to thoughtfully carry out our thoughts cogently. As Carr puts it:

Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

However, we’ve been paralyzed with fear about technological advancements since the earliest days of thought: Plato feared that writing would cause our memorization capacities to fade; Gutenberg’s press would lead to intellectual laziness; and thinking changed as Nietzsche’s words morphed from rhetoric to telegram style.

On other extreme end is futurist Jamais Cascio, who argues that “Google isn’t the problem; it’s the beginning of a solution.” Indeed, with intelligence augmentation, new technologies would be able to “filter” what we are interested in; and seamlessly tailor our information absorption according to our needs. This opposite end of the spectrum argues that civilization requires diversity and innovation – and technology is a means to that end. Information professionals must be aware of this dichotomy: when much information is too much information? As Herbert Simon once said, "wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." How can we scan when we must interpret and decode?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Web 2.0 Five Year Anniversary

As we approach the six-year mark from the original Web 2.0 thesis, Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle come together in a refocusing session of where the social web is going. Once applications live in the cloud, the key to success will be harnessing network effects so that those applications literally get better the more people use them. In the recent Web 2.0 Summit, O'Reilly and Battelle penned a white paper which they argue,

today we see that applications are being driven by sensors, not just by people typing on keyboards. They are becoming platforms for collective action, not just collective intelligence. The "data shadows" that people and things leave in cyberspace are becoming richer and deeper, and are being exploited in new ways. All this is adding up to something profound and different. When web meets world, we get Web Squared.
1. Sensory Input - We're not searching via keyboard and search grammar; we're talking to and with the Web. With new search applications such as Google's Mobile App for the iPhone, speech recognition is detected as soon as the application detects movement of the phone to the ear. The Web is growing, and is to the point of getting smart enough to understand things without us having to tell it explicity.

2. Implied Metadata - Because the Web is "learning," meaning is being learned "inferentially" from the body of data each day, and speech recognition and computer vision are examples of this kind of machine learning. The Web 2.0 era is about discovering such implied metadata, and then building a database to capture that metadata and fostering an ecosystem around it.

3. Information Shadows - Real world objects have "information shadows" in cyberspace. Because of sensor applications like the iPhone's, a book that has information shadows on Amazon, Google Book Search, LibraryThing, eBay, Twitter, and in a thousand blogs.

4. Digital Returns to the Physical - As a result, these shadows are linked with their real world analogues by unique identifiers: an ISBN, a serial number, etc. Real-world objects can be "tagged" and its metadata on the Web. Libraries have long been innovators in this field (as information managers), with some cataloguing systems based on the idea of FRBR, which represents a holistic approach to retrieval and access as the relationships between the entities provide links to navigate through the hierarchy of relationships.

5. Rise of the Real-Time - The Web has become a conversation - meaning, search has gotten faster. Microblogging (such as Twitter) has required instantaneous updating -- a significant shift in both infrastructure and approach. Search has become real-time and human participation has added a layer of structure (and metadata). This new information layer being built around Twitter could rival existing services such as search, analytics, and social networks. Moreover, real-time is not limited to social media or mobile. As the authors point out, Walmart has been doing such instantaneous information cascading for many years: real-time feedback (from customers) drive inventory. As a "Web Squared" company, its operations are infused with IT, and innately driven by data from their customers -- the physical being driven by the digital and vice-versa.

What does this all mean? Librarians have a role to play. We've been doing it for years with FRBR and RFID. It's time we turn the page and write the first sentence for this new Web.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Facebook Era

Clara Shih is a rising star in the social media world. The Facebook Era is a new technology model, way of thinking, and cultural phenomenon. Whereas the last decade was about the World Wide Web of information and the power of linking web pages, today, we are seeing a World Wide Web of people emerge. I think Shih introduces some interesting concepts to the social media hemisphere:

1. The Social Graph -- Called the fourth revolution of "social computing", the social networking movement has blurred the lines of the private and the public, a movement that afffects us all personally first, professionally second -- it ultimately blends the old dichotomies of the personal and the professional.

2. Social Sales -- The social web has become one large Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Social networking businesses and organizations to view profiles of their accounts, capture deal information, track performance, communicate with contacts, and share information internally. As a result the social CRM becomes a bidirectional relationship between vendor and customer.

3. Social Capital -- the social graph reaches far beyond technology and media. It is one of the most signficant sociocultural phenomena of this decade. Weak ties used to require a lot of effort to sustain; however, with the social web, people now are accustomed to accumulating and never losing contacts throughout the rest of their lives

Clara Shih became an important name in corporate social networking when she developed Faceconnector (initially named Faceforce) in 2007, which was the first business application on Facebook. The application integrates Facebook and Salesforce CRM, pulling Facebook profiles and friend information into Salesforce account, lead, and contact records. Although the book is aimed at the business and technology, it is also has an intellectual premise about a sociocultural transformation that requires a change in our thinking and a new language to articulate our strategies and observations.

It will be interesting to see the continued impact of the The Facebook Era in the upcoming years as social media is still ever-evolving. Although it is a required textbook for the Global Entrepreneurial Marketing course at Stanford and social media course at Harvard Business School, there's no gurantee that these tools will continue to dominate.

Monday, November 09, 2009

ASIS&T and Historians of Information

Thomas Haigh is one of those rare individuals who speak elegantly, and write brilliantly interesting stories that superimpose very uninteresting topics in a thoughtful, academic manner. Not a librarian or LIS practitioner by trade, Haigh is actually a(n) historian by training and have taught an eclectic collection of subjects over the years. But now he teaches at the University of Wisconsin's School of Information Studies program. Haigh's panel challenges the historiography of information science, arguing that much is lacking due to the fact that information science poorly focuses on the training and engagement of historical topics. He argues, convincingly in my opinion, that the history of information science is actually written more succinctly and richly by those outside of the field itself.

On Day 2 of the The American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T) in Vancouver, BC (Thriving on Diversity - Information Opportunities in a Pluralistic World),I attended the panel, New Directions in Information History which included Haigh, Geoffrey Bowker, William Aspray, and Robert Williams. Haigh caught my attention the most as he challenged (often to an uncomfortable audience of LIS practitioners) thesocial and philosophical issues around technology, and in the relationship between the world of code and world of people. Haigh was trained in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania where he eventually became an historian specializing in 20th Century America, in the history of technology and in the social history of work and business.

Haigh is currently delving into the social history of the personal computer, where he argues that despite the shelves of books on the history of the PC, there has been "no serious historical study" of how people used their computers or why they brought them. In my session, Haigh was confronted heatedly about his argument that the history of information science is often weak and incomplete as information technology experts and scientists fail to capture the historical, social, and cultural contexts of proper history writing. Haigh touches on this briefly in his article, Sources for ACM History: What, Where, Why. It was very interesting seeing the giants of LIS such as Michael Buckland and Marcia Bates in the room debating with Haigh's externalist vision for historical inquiry of information science -- and is perhaps a microcosm of the state of the field today. Alas, the debate rages on.

Friday, November 06, 2009

MTR in Need of Librarians

Who says that information managers are restricted to libraries? There are exciting careers to be found in the world of information. In this increasingly globalized world of knowledge exchange and retrieval, jobs such as this is becoming the norm. Take a look at Hong Kong's MTR need for an information professional.

Get Your Career On The Move
Are you looking for a career where you can make a difference? As a MTR Corporation team member, you can.
In MTR Corporation, we have expanded our business from beyond the construction and operations of a mass transit railway system. We have prided ourselves in growing the communities and enhancing the quality of life of Hong Kong people. Today, MTR Corporation is a diversified company with interests in transportation, property management, many other commercial activities, investment projects and consultancy services worldwide.
We would like to invite applications for the positions of:

(Ref: J09031)

Reporting to the Manager-Knowledge and Information, you will perform the role of a Technical Librarian by maintaining a library of essential records for the Projects Division. You will maintain key aspects of the Intranet Portal including smart interactive organisation charts, on-line reference libraries, etc. using the SharePoint 2007 platform. You will also be a centralised resource to respond to hotline requests and support staff in the use of knowledge management tools through the new Intranet Portal.
You should have a Higher Diploma in Management Studies or equivalent and 3 years' relevant working experience.
You are invited to apply online at or send in your application stating the position you are applying for and relevant reference number either by email to or by mail to the following address on or before 27 February 2009:
Human Resource Management Department
MTR Corporation
G.P.O. Box 9916
Hong Kong

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Tim Berners-Lee talks about the future of the Web

Although he has sometimes been mocked for his unusual communication style, Tim Berners-Lee is still one of the most fascinating personalities of the 21st (and 20th) century - and definitely someone whom you would sit down and listen to when he talks. Almost twenty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee helped create the World Wide Web. He continues to lead the World Wide Web Consortium, overseeing the Web's standards and development.

However, his vision never ended with the the current day form of the Web. Rather, he's building a web for open, linked data that could do for numbers what the Web did for words, pictures, video: unlock our data and reframe the way we use it together. A Semantic Web, in other words.

About Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He