Friday, August 26, 2011

Steve Jobs, An Appreciation

Steve Jobs changed our world, and his genius deserves a celebration. He gave us hardware that is a joy to hold in one’s hand, run by software that is a joy to use and wrapped in packaging that is a joy to open. Worldwide joy would be an appropriate expression of gratitude, were it not for his failing health.

As many serious analysts, Apple, and Steve Jobs himself have pointed out, Apple has a very deep bench and a long product pipeline. It has attracted great scientists, engineers, designers, and business people. Even its innovation pipeline is innovative: the App store will bring innovation to Apple doorstep for years to come. For all these reasons, Apple seems prepared for business with Steve Jobs as a “mere” Chairman of the Board now and without Steve Jobs in the future.

All protestations aside, the character of Apple will change. Gradually. It could be for the better. Odds are it will be for the worse. In fact, we have seen such a movie before. I remember unwrapping my first programmable calculator in the seventies. It was an HP 45C. You had to feel the perfection of the buttons. The oh-so-logical reverse Polish notation got the job done twice as fast. The quality was nothing short of amazing. My HP 45C was still working flawlessly thirty years later. Then, tucked away in the back of a desk drawer unused but still loved, a battery leaked. Over time, HP became passionless, produced commodity items, and provided commodity services. Under the disastrous Carly Fiorina, “the HP way” became a four-letter word, product innovation was an empty marketing concept, and financial engineering took center stage.

Yesterday, I went to Best Buy to re-verify something. The bottoms of most Windows notebooks are plastered with stickers and printed text. The keyboards are sold-out advertizing venues. Apple notebooks are pristine, except for four lines of barely distinguishable grey text on the aluminum body. How many lawyers, marketing people, committees, suppliers, and others did Steve Jobs have to overrule just for beauty? How come others did not adopt this simple idea?

Business leaders may point to Steve Jobs to justify any control-freak tendency. Without the kind of genius that it takes, they are bound to fail, and they are probably better off in the mediocrity-guaranteeing committee-driven world of conventional business. I have a suggestion for them. In one fell swoop they can accomplish three things: They can, in their own minds, equate themselves with Steve Jobs. They can satisfy their cravings for control. And, they can provide a valuable service: Get rid of ugly stickers and ridiculous warning labels.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fourth Branch Library

Today’s library is the result of twenty years of incremental changes: an institution buying access to information wholesale and restricting that access retail. As discussed here and here, the wholesale market for information is distorted and creates artificially high site license prices. Another expense is the inordinate amount of time staff spend on usage studies and community outreach to gauge collective information needs, negotiations with consortia that pool resources to obtain imaginary discounts from inflated list prices, negotiations with publishers and their agents, and internal library discussions. After they are acquired, site licenses remain expensive. As protectors of publishers’ digital rights, libraries spend significant resources restricting access at the retail level.

The time for incremental change is over. We must rebuild the library from scratch on a foundation of traditional library values. Here is my attempt.

The mission of the library is to serve the members of its community by:
1. Helping them create high-quality information,
2. Collecting, organizing, and archiving that information, and
3. Making that information widely available, subject to legal and ethical constraints.

This mission is steeped in tradition. Libraries of the antiquity were more about secrecy than openness, but their primary purpose was to archive locally produced information. The purest modern implementation of the vision I am proposing is the American presidential library, which collects, manages, and makes available the information from one administration. Public libraries routinely accept manuscripts and personal correspondence of authors and other luminaries. University archives preserve scholarly history. Many academic libraries have implemented various open-access initiatives and have set up databases containing publications of faculty and students (scholarly articles, books, theses, and dissertations).

This mission allows for specialization. Libraries are ideally positioned to add value to information produced by the communities they serve. A public library that serves a particular location may help its constituents with educational programs in information literacy. Other libraries may specialize in particular disciplines and serve communities that are dispersed worldwide. This is particularly the case for data archives, which require deep specialization.

This mission includes nonprofit and for-profit organizations. In this view, publishers are for-profit libraries. As such, they shoulder all the responsibilities of a library, including archiving the information under its purview.

This mission exploits the network effect. Through collaboration, libraries can create a worldwide network of high-quality information that is more than the sum of its parts.

This mission is critically important. We produce an exponentially rising amount of information that is poorly managed and in danger of being irretrievably lost.

For concrete examples, I could point to existing open access initiatives. Peter Suber’s The Open Access Overview is a good place to start. Most of these initiatives share the trait of being focused on disseminating information from a community to the world and letting the web take care of bringing the world to individuals. These are great initiatives, but I want to push the limits. I do not want to be boxed in by what is feasible today.

The largest producer of public-domain information is the government. Legal information, legislative records, and official government reports are readily available through established channels. Other government records, however, are more problematic. As a matter of expediency, officials tend to have a bias towards opaqueness. Impenetrable government records are managed by a hodgepodge of government agencies. The system hides problems ranging from bad judgment to corruption and complicates good governance.

What if we had an independent agency to manage the government’s records? This agency would create the systems to gather this information. It would decide the appropriate level of public access. By imposing standards, it would ensure that government records were machine-readable and discoverable. The infrastructure for such an independent agency is already in place: the public library system at the local, county, state, and federal levels. In its most extreme form, this independent agency could evolve into a fourth branch of government, one dedicated to transparency of the other branches.

As a practical matter, this may be an overreach, and more modest initiatives are more realistic starting points. However, considering the profound impact of digital information on our lives and considering that the information age is here to stay, we are forced to think big.

On the other hand, thinking small comes naturally. The latest innovation of the Los Angeles Public Library sets free the all-important Sony Music catalog, saving Los Angeles residents from the unspeakable burden of $1 song downloads. The Librarian in Black has a detailed critique.

<Note: edited title 8/26/2011>

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World

With every budget cut, libraries incrementally cut their services. User protests evaporate when they find alternative information sources on the web. When the cuts are absorbed without major problems, the stage is set for another round of cuts. The current economy exacerbates the situation by increasing the size and frequency of the cuts, but the real crisis is a version of a well-known scenario, extensively documented by Clayton Christensen in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” (This book deals with profit-making enterprises, but in later work Christensen expanded his theories into the nonprofit realm.) When a disruptive technology invades a well-established field, the establishment is institutionally incapable of letting go of its existing business models until it is too late.

In this post, I am setting the stage for a proposed new mission for libraries. For this new mission to succeed, old business models must give way. This is the kind of radical change institutions commit to only when there is no other choice. The goal of this post is to make it absolutely clear: Libraries have no other choice. If this post strikes you as too negative, please be patient. Future posts will be constructive.

Today’s libraries have used technology mostly to improve operational efficiency. Databases replaced card catalogs and various indexes. Site-licensed journals replaced journal subscriptions. With the advent of e-readers, some libraries are replacing book acquisition with site licenses to collections of digital books. This is not innovative use of digital technology; it is a digital implementation of the paper-based library. Real innovation must address the core issue, how digital technology eroded the traditional library’s mission: distributing, subsidizing, and archiving information.

Distributing Information. Paper-based libraries buy or collect information (books, journals, multimedia, databases…) from various sources and make it available to their local communities. Does it really need explaining that the web is a global distribution mechanism for digital information? Digital information may reside anywhere and does not need local intermediaries for distribution. Buying information in bulk for the mythical “typical user” is rather incongruous in the era of iTunes. In terms of pure distribution, intermediaries only complicate the information landscape.

Subsidizing Information. Libraries are a source of subsidized information. Libraries and publishers perpetuated the same mechanism by which information is subsidized when transitioning from paper to digital. Libraries receive the funds from their controlling authority (government, university, corporate entity…) to acquire information on behalf of the communities they serve. With digital information, we have the choice to subsidize users directly. This would be simpler to administer and users would be able to acquire exactly the information they need.

Commercial systems like iTunes, the Kindle Store, and others can easily be adapted to accept direct user subsidies. The problem is not a technical one. The idea of direct user subsidies forces an uncomfortable renegotiation of the library-user-society compact. For current libraries, managing collections is a core preoccupation. Direct user subsidies may take many forms, and the libraries’ role is not clear. This might even ignite a debate along liberal/conservative lines whether information should be subsidized. No matter where one stands on this issue, it is a debate worth having.

As discussed previously, buying site licenses on behalf of users is an expensive method to subsidize information. Negotiating and managing site licenses is expensive. Tools that assist the users in navigating the library’s site licenses are costly and add to management overhead. Finally, the anticompetitive nature of site licenses distorts the free market and is likely to increase prices.

Archiving Information. Paper-based libraries are effective archives. Storing multiple copies in many different locations around the world protects against natural and political disasters of almost any magnitude. With appropriate technology and with regional, national, and international cooperation, libraries could safeguard digital information for the long term. Unfortunately, their role in archiving site-licensed information is severely limited, because site licenses provide only temporary and community-restricted access. (This is fundamentally different from paper-based information: libraries own the books.)

The public sector can develop the technological infrastructure for digital archives, but owners of information decide whether to participate and for how long (subject to contracts). We can only hope that voluntary efforts are sufficient for public archives to acquire important information before it is lost. This is not satisfactory for digital objects of cultural and scientific significance. It is too late for information that is already under private control. We must develop more opportunities for public ownership.

Digital technology has eroded the three pillars of the mission of current libraries. As is common with disruptive technology, existing business models are inadequate. Buying information to make it available to a limited community no longer makes any sense. Instead, libraries should focus on collecting and managing information from local communities and making that information available as widely as possible. This is a mission with future, and it is a topic for future blog posts.

Friday, August 5, 2011

States Interfere with Religion!

Walls separating church and state are crumbling in favor of the state. Every day, states intervene in church business, and activist judges overturn holy sacraments. Lacking legal standing, churches are not consulted and have no recourse. Rather than fighting this outrage, some churches are even campaigning to preserve this infringement on religious freedom by writing it into the constitution.

When a cleric pronounces a couple married, he creates a legal and religious union. When a judge grants a divorce, she dissolves the original union. If marriage started out as an institution that combines the religious and the legal, it is logically impossible to dissolve the legal union without also dissolving the religious union. Some churches overlook this, because “that’s the way it’s always been.” Others, like the Catholic Church, engage in some creative construction that allows them not to recognize the divorce. This is somewhat problematic: if the marriage was an expression of legal and religious union, at which point during the marriage did the legal and religious become untangled? This is a case where familiarity does not breed contempt. Instead, it blinds us to obvious faults.

Those fighting gay marriage may not want to admit it, but they have already lost. It is only a question of time. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act or if Congress overturns it, federal gay marriage could be a fact within one or two years. In the absence of judicial or congressional action, generational politics will determine the time horizon: When grandpa dies, his vote will be replaced by a vote in favor of gay marriage. (Please note: I do not wish gramps to die. I want him to live a long and prosperous life, while providing him with great and affordable health care.)

Opponents of gay marriage have a choice, and either option has ample political precedent. They can keep the losing issue alive as long as possible, if only to raise money and to shore up the base. This faction wants to engage in a futile fight for a constitutional amendment. The alternative is to pivot. In New York, some Republicans did the latter and used the issue to shore up the separation between church and state. They did not go far enough. The current institution of marriage must be split into two different institutions that exist side by side. Marriage should be the prerogative of the church, with each religion deciding its own rules for marriage without any interference from the state. Marriage should be about religious and moral commitments between the partners, not about their legal rights and obligations. The latter are the purview of the state, which should only recognize civil unions.