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Bulletin, February/March 2010

ASIS&T ’09 Plenary Session II

Diversity in Digital Information Environments: Opportunity or Chaos? A Pecha-Kucha Presentation

by Steve Hardin

Steve Hardin is an associate librarian at the Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN. His email address is Steve.Hardin<at>

Six information scientists outlined their ideas about the opportunity or chaos facing us in the diversity of digital information environments in the second plenary session at the 2009 Annual Meeting. The presentation followed a rapid-fire format called “Pecha-Kucha,” Japanese for “conversation.” Each panelist was given six minutes and 40 seconds to display 20 slides for 20 seconds each. 

Cathy MarshallMicrosoft Research’s Cathy Marshall noted that diversity stems from the way we use and share information. She began with a vignette about the re-use of a picture that was posted in Twitpic, a photo-sharing service associated with Twitter. The picture (of an out-of-place hairpiece or “weave”) was the butt of many jokes. Copies proliferated. In fact, Marshall said, these copies and partial copies – the result of re-use and re-publication – accumulate in all the nooks and crannies of the Internet. There are “giant dust bunnies” under the cloud of information. Copyright law is evolving to support the creative use of material in the growing mashup culture. Even with de-duplication, the same material keeps reappearing. But it’s not quite the same. Each digital copy takes on a life of its own. For example, photos may be re-captioned. Other metadata, both real and fictitious, may be added. Marshall said she’s heard computer scientists say, “The truth is in the cloud.” This means that there’s always a reference copy of data somewhere – the “digital original.” But which manifestation is the original? Does it matter? We agree that it does. For our own material, we have a tendency to designate one copy as the original and to think of it as authoritative. However, when we look at an example (in this case, a student animator’s films that she published on the web), the metadata for each copy is substantially different. Some of it is social – ratings and number of views; some of it is descriptive – tags and characteristics. We should look at digital diversity as an opportunity. There is value in the accumulation. “Because of that,” Marshall concluded, “the truth isn’t in the cloud. The truth is a cloud.” 

Elaine TomsElaine Toms, of Dalhousie University in Canada, made a case for getting back to basics and getting the foundation of our house in order. Diversity is nothing new, she said, and we’ve adapted to changing communication tools as they evolve, from the tin cans we used as children through the telegraph, the crank phone, the dial phone, the touch phone and now the cell phone. But now, the diversity is showing up in information. As Jean Tague Sutcliffe put it nearly 15 years ago, “Information has become like the air we breathe, so pervasive that we scarcely notice its existence and yet so essential that we cannot live without it.” Where previous generations focused on physical activities, our activities are in our heads. We receive information like the water flow through a fire hose. We need new tools. We’ve left tool development to technologists. They’ve given us some good tools, but others – such as requiring a user to push START to turn off the computer – leave a bit to be desired. Why have we not taken the lead? Toms believes we have not put enough effort into defining who and what we are. Our own terminology is misused. We haven’t made connections with other disciplines. There aren’t any up-to-date coherent information technology textbooks with statements of our core principles. This lack is evidence that we don’t know what we stand for. She concluded by asking, “How can we develop tools if we don’t have an integrated conceptual foundation?” 

Allison DruinAllison Druin of the University of Maryland began with a story. Once upon a time, she said, children lived with blocks, books, songs, stars, boats and magic dragons that went puff. Then it came to pass that a new day dawned with new technologies – laptops, handhelds, mp3 players and mobile phones – that rose to meet our children. They could now search the online world of knowledge, and they could read stories brought to them by iTunes. Changes came in control, collaboration and community. Children could find a community that cared about what they did. Druin posed several questions: What technologies belong in schools? What changes should we make in the learning process? When should something be public or private? How much knowledge is too much? Druin described the “iChild,” born of the fruits of technology. The iChild is independent; she doesn’t wait for others to explore. She expects to find what she wants to find when she wants to find it. The iChild must ask: Am I really here? Is the iChild destined for the dark side? Technology forces members of the next generation into being passive, addicted consumers. The path begins with learning. Learn to hear what the iChild says, and what it does. It’s not good enough to accept what is; our children expect much, much more. Children can be partners in designs of new technology and content. Give a choice to children. But we also need to open our eyes to see why children and their families use technology wherever they learn. When we understand, new technologies will be born, she said. When this happens, new technologies don’t need to be banished from our classrooms. We need to embrace what cannot be changed. Respect and honor the child. Make it possible for children to love learning and believe in themselves. We can ignore the dark side; we can give up, or we can learn from all this and learn what to do in the future. You can give the blood of new ideas. Druin called upon the audience to give now, before it’s too late. “You can make a difference in the life of a child,” she said. 

Gary MarchioniniGary Marchionini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes we should augment the rich texts we use with other media expressions. What does “digital diversity” mean? We are embodied minds, embedded in digitally augmented environments. He showed a series of videos, which he said were pieces of his life. How many senses have you? How many minds have you for each? There’s more to information than text. Get beyond your neighborhood. Get beyond text. We live in a globally connected kind of world. Can we get beyond time? Back or forward in history? He showed fast-forward video work, including scenes from an old movie about Coney Island, last year’s ASIS&T Annual Meeting, the Information Architecture Summit in Memphis and a poster session. Is it real? Is it done? He showed videos of bits of his life. They make up his “proflection” in cyberspace – they’re now on the web. What is your identity? You know some of it, but not all of it. Marchionini halted his presentation for 16 seconds. The sudden stop seemed like a long time. He then asked, “How uncomfortable was that?” Returning to his “sensory assault,” he told audience members to trust their bodies: “You can’t have a thousand strong ties, no matter how many social networking tools you have.” Digital media are rich and interactive, but nowhere near as rich and interactive as we are, he concluded. 

Candy SchwartzSimmons College's Candy Schwartz spoke of the Internet as being participative, collaborative and interactive, promoting content sharing and content creation through open collections and tools. Early adoption spreads more quickly through fora such as Code4Lib and unconferences. Services are distributed and are device and location-independent. Information can be watched, listened to and read. Twitter has become a current awareness and crowd-sourced information delivery tool. All of these developments have led to problems. There's too much information in too many haystacks, coming from too many channels and friends, and it all takes too much time. What areas do we need to pay attention to, then? One is identity management – we present ourselves in our social networks, professional and personal blended together, but we are also what we publish, what we buy, how we are pictured, what we search, whom we talk with, what we listen to, what we watch and what reflects back to us. Another area of study is ambient awareness – how do all those updates combine to form a sophisticated portrait of an individual? We should be concerned with evolving definitions of friendship – what does it mean when you don’t have to ask your friends “what’s new?” because you know, and you pick up a conversation in the middle. How do we understand “friends” and “followers”? Also, we need to examine the effects of diverted attention and time management. Sophisticated filtering is a research avenue worth pursuing; current filtering is somewhat primitive – it usually requires blocking individuals or blocking specific applications. Finally, we need to consider context. Much of what streams through our online lives lacks context – it may be a snippet of a blog, a piece of a song, one picture, a retweet, a snarl on Facebook, a factoid without surrounding facts. Context is important for understanding and trust. It can be related to location, time, activity or event, any number of things. This is where linked data will play a role.

Andrew DillonAndrew Dillon, University of Texas, asked, “Chaos, what chaos?” He added he doesn’t think we’re in danger of chaos at all. Information is part of who we are. He noted there were cave paintings 15,000 years ago. The pace of change increases with time. In a way, it does not matter what happens next – it’s going to happen. Chaos may actually have beautiful underlying aspects. What’s magical is that we can play around it. Perspective is everything. You’ll never get it if you concentrate on the technology or on the information. It’s not about information – it’s about the people. He showed a slide of someone in sub-Saharan Africa wearing a cell phone. Inequality is accelerating – but that’s not where the issue is. Your processing abilities are declining with age. We know what sort of designs we’ll need in 20 years because of that decline. The more we pursue digital, the more it becomes human. When X-rays were first developed, people had to learn how to interpret them. You and the doctor see something different in the same x-ray. We must learn how we interpret and make meaning – the platform is not where the action is. The action is where people are. We get caught up in the fast-changing things: fashion, art, commerce, governance. But culture changes more slowly; that’s what we need to study. “I know where I stand; you need to figure out where you are,” Dillon concluded. 

Dania BilalNext, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. Dania Bilal from the University of Tennessee wanted to know about the topic’s relationship to library and information science education. Marchionini said instructors should assign videos. For years, many of us have been augmenting our reading lists with things that aren’t texts. Toms said educators should be working on “animation, graphics and new media.” She added it’ll be a long time before text disappears. Schwartz said educators need to cover general principles. Students need to learn tools to be hirable, but it’s about what Dillon said: Get beneath the tools, work with them on a fundamental level. 

Mike KoenigMike Koenig of Long Island University raised privacy concerns. An “Exxon Valdez for privacy” has already been predicted. He wonders whether we’ll discover a major country has been maintaining a minute-by-minute log of the whereabouts of its citizens with cell phones. Will that be an Exxon Valdez, or a ho-hum? Toms noted medical data will get distributed; that will be your Exxon Valdez. Dillon said it’s happened and we haven’t noticed it. It’s happening routinely. We’re just barely figuring out how to deal with it. Marshall said the dark part of the Internet is well organized and controlled by people who have this information and sell it. We have oil on our feathers and don’t realize it. Druin noted it’s already happening with our children. There’ll be more information on them than anyone else. 

Shelly Warwick of the Touro-Harlem Medical Library in New York City observed that members of the current generation don’t seem to care about privacy. They live their lives online. They’re used to being invaded. There are other cultures where there’s a lesser expectation of privacy. Maybe our North American culture will change. Druin said it’s the impact of this privacy or public face that they care about. They care when they can’t get a job because of something they’ve done online. It’s hard for them to make the connection between the virtual and physical worlds. Marchionini said Facebook privacy settings have been increasing. Schwartz said it’s not a matter of generations; she’s 61 and not very private on the web.

Luanne Freund Grant Campbell Deborah "Ralf" Shaw

Interest in the topic remained high as discussion of the issues continued with the speakers and audience members joining in small knots as they headed for lunch when the session ended.