Monday, October 11, 2010

Learning Blog #5 The Big Switch..."Do not attempt to light with match"

Image courtesy of GE Innovation Timeline

Feared, ..........invisible, and boring

Long Island Light and Power Co., Mineola, Long Island. Meter shop

  • Digital ID: (intermediary roll film) gsc 5a22393
  • Reproduction Number: LC-G613-T-64208 (interpositive)
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 US  

In "The Big Switch" Nicholas Carr draws parallels between the cultural reaction to the introduction of electricity in the early 20th century, to the rise of the "World Wide Computer" in the early 21st century. Before the creation of the electric grid, manufacturers would need to create the machinery to power their operations. In the early days of computers, businesses would need to create the software and specialized applications to run their operations. When electricity became cheap, and software came shipped in boxes, both were reluctant to give up all the investment in previous infrastructure and equipment. Only when utility companies made the cost of electricity almost free, did big business of the early 20th century "outsource" the power to someone else. 

With the rise of "Cloud computing" and open source software, once again the cost of infrastructure is "free". One library that I work for (Library Q), is in the process of migrating to a cloud ILS system ( We do not have the expertise or money to invest in our own servers and software, so we give up some control and customization and go with a cheap outsourced solution. LibraryWorld has become our catalog utility. We let them worry about software updates, and hardware issues, so we can focus on collection building & our own library process. We do not have much of a relationship besides paying the yearly fee.The other, (Library A,)  does not want to give up control, or the historical investment (time, money....) expensive proprietary vendor created ILS, so we have the stable yet inflexible catalog system, and lots of phone calls and support calls because it is not quite right. 

My favorite quote came in the Epilogue of the book,"All technological change is generational change. The full power and consequences of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins". In another reading there was a quite regarding the public's reaction to any new technology: first it is feared, then it is commonplace, then it is invisible. When the new technology becomes ubiquitous, only then do exciting things start to happen.

I was searching for an illustration I saw at the Bakken Museum ( ) about the "magical mysterious powers of electricity". The Bakken had an exhibit on the cultural history of electricity. It was dangerous and mysterious, and lifelike. (Think Frankenstein). Some people thought it was an evil intrusion. Others had a more Utopian vision of the power of electricity. It was sanitary, and safe, a vision of progress and the future. In the beginning a new technology requires many instructions (see sign above). By the 1940's were there many Americans who had never encountered a light swtich or a light bulb?

I remember when computers came with big bulky instruction manuals. When Library A bought our new ILS we had weeks of training on the cataloging module, the circulation module, etc. Library Q's "instruction manual" for is a 2 page pdf file. My mother gave me her iPod because "it didn't come with any instructions". It seems like my kid was born knowing how to click and double click, and tap and swipe the screen to expand a digital picture. She doesn't need to know how it works, she just tries it and isn't afraid of "breaking" it.

My "aha" moment came when reading p. 223 regarding the Google Digital Book scanning project. "We are not scanning all those books to be read by people. We are scanning them to be read by an Artificial Intelligence". Duh! Well here I thought Google was acting in the best interest of the academy and learning and human knowledge. Why didn't that even occur to me? 

It reminds me of an old Encyclopedia Brown book where the kids had to spend days reading textbooks to the Univac computer "programming" it so it would be ready to answer their homework questions. Computers are dumb. You tell it what to do, and then it gets really smart and really fast.

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