Inflection Points

I: The Universal Solvent

I have to admit that I am in awe of iTunes University. It’s just amazing that so many well-respected universities – Stanford, MIT, Yale, and Uni Melbourne – are willing to put their crown jewels – their lectures – online for everyone to download. It’s outstanding when even one school provides a wealth of material, but as other schools provide their own material, then we get to see some of the virtues of crowdsourcing. First, you have a virtuous cycle: as more material is shared, more material will be made available to share. After the virtuous cycle gets going, it’s all about a flight to quality.

When you have half a dozen or have a hundred lectures on calculus, which one do you choose? The one featuring the best lecturer with the best presentation skills, the best examples, and the best math jokes – of course. This is my only complaint with iTunes University – you can’t rate the various lectures on offer. You can know which ones have been downloaded most often, but that’s not precisely the same thing as which calculus seminar or which sociology lecture is the best. So as much as I love iTunes University, I see it as halfway there. Perhaps Apple didn’t want to turn iTunes U into a popularity contest, but, without that vital bit of feedback, it’s nearly impossible for us to winnow out the wheat from the educational chaff.

This is something that has to happen inside the system; it could happen across a thousand educational blogs spread out across the Web, but then it’s too diffuse to be really helpful. The reviews have to be coordinated and collated – just as with RateMyProfessors.com.

Say, that’s an interesting point. Why not create RateMyLectures.com, a website designed to sit right alongside iTunes University? If Apple can’t or won’t rate their offerings, someone has to create the one-stop-shop for ratings. And as iTunes University gets bigger and bigger, RateMyLectures.com becomes ever more important, the ultimate guide to the ultimate source of educational multimedia on the Internet. One needs the other to be wholly useful; without ratings iTunes U is just an undifferentiated pile of possibilities. But with ratings, iTunes U becomes a highly focused and effective tool for digital education.

Now let’s cast our minds ahead a few semesters: iTunes U is bigger and better than ever, and RateMyLectures.com has benefited from the hundreds of thousands of contributed reviews. Those reviews extend beyond the content in iTunes U, out into YouTube and Google Video and Vimeo and Blip.tv and where ever people are creating lectures and putting them online. Now anyone can come by the site and discover the absolute best lecture on almost any subject they care to research. The net is now cast globally; I can search for the best lecture on Earth, so long as it’s been captured and uploaded somewhere, and someone’s rated it on RateMyLectures.com.

All of a sudden we’ve imploded the boundaries of the classroom. The lecture can come from the US, or the UK, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any other country. Location doesn’t matter – only its rating as ‘best’ matters. This means that every student, every time they sit down at a computer, already does or will soon have on available the absolute best lectures, globally. That’s just a mind-blowing fact. It grows very naturally out of our desire to share and our desire to share ratings about what we have shared. Nothing extraordinary needed to happen to produce this entirely extraordinary state of affairs.

The network is acting like a universal solvent, dissolving all of the boundaries that have kept things separate. It’s not just dissolving the boundaries of distance – though it is doing that – it’s also dissolving the boundaries of preference. Although there will always be differences in taste and delivery, some instructors are simply better lecturers – in better command of their material – than others. Those instructors will rise to the top. Just as RateMyProfessors.com has created a global market for the lecturers with the highest ratings, RateMyLectures.com will create a global market for the best performances, the best material, the best lessons.

That RateMyLectures.com is only a hypothetical shouldn’t put you off. Part of what’s happening at this inflection point is that we’re all collectively learning how to harness the network for intelligence augmentation – Engelbart’s final triumph. All we need do is identify an area which could benefit from knowledge sharing and, sooner rather than later, someone will come along with a solution. I’d actually be very surprised if a service a lot like RateMyLectures.com doesn’t already exist. It may be small and unimpressive now. But Wikipedia was once small and unimpressive. If it’s useful, it will likely grow large enough to be successful.

Of course, lectures alone do not an education make. Lectures are necessary but are only one part of the educational process. Mentoring and problem solving and answering questions: all of these take place in the very real, very physical classroom. The best lectures in the world are only part of the story. The network is also transforming the classroom, from inside out, melting it down, and forging it into something that looks quite a bit different from the classroom we’ve grown familiar with over the last 50 years.

II: Fluid Dynamics

If we take the examples of RateMyProfessors.com and RateMyLectures.com and push them out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; RateMyProfessors.com points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open” school, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructors facilitate and mentor, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial presence with the instructor, it will have a physical locale, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode, vanishing online, and explode: the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; as the network begins to destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else becomes inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: Digital Citizenship

Obviously, much of what I’ve described here in the “melting down” of the educational process applies first and foremost to university students. That’s where most of the activity is taking place. But I would argue that it only begins with university students. From there – just like Facebook – it spreads across the gap between tertiary and secondary education, and into the high schools and colleges.

This is significant an interesting because it’s at this point that we, within Australia, run headlong into the Government’s plan to provide laptops for all year 9 through year 12 students. Some schools will start earlier; there’s a general consensus among educators that year 7 is the earliest time a student should be trusted to behave responsibility with their “own” computer. Either way, the students will be fully equipped and capable to use all of the tools at hand to manage their own education.

But will they? Some of this is a simple question of discipline: will the students be disciplined enough to take an ever-more-active role in the co-production of their education? As ever, the question is neither black nor white; some students will demonstrate the qualities of discipline needed to allow them to assume responsibility for their education, while others will not.

But, somewhere along here, there’s the presumption of some magical moment during the secondary school years, when the student suddenly learns how to behave online. And we already know this isn’t happening. We see too many incidents where students make mistakes, behaving badly without fully understanding that the whole world really is watching.

In the early part of this year I did a speaking tour with the Australian Council of Educational Researchers; during the tour I did a lot of listening. One thing I heard loud and clear from the educators is that giving a year 7 student a laptop is the functional equivalent of giving them a loaded gun. And we shouldn’t be surprised, when we do this, when there are a few accidental – or volitional – shootings.

I mentioned this in a talk to TAFE educators last week, and one of the attendees suggested that we needed to teach “Digital Citizenship”. I’d never heard the phrase before, but I’ve taken quite a liking to it. Of course, by the time a student gets to TAFE, the damage is done. We shouldn’t start talking about digital citizenship in TAFE. We should be talking about it from the first days of secondary education. And it’s not something that should be confined to the school: parents are on the hook for this, too. Even when the parents are not digitally literate, they can impart the moral and ethical lessons of good behavior to their children, lessons which will transfer to online behavior.

Make no mistake, without a firm grounding in digital citizenship, a secondary student can’t hope to make sense of the incredibly rich and impossibly distracting world afforded by the network. Unless we turn down the internet connection – which always seems like the first option taken by administrators – students will find themselves overwhelmed. That’s not surprising: we’ve taught them few skills to help them harness the incredible wealth available. In part that’s because we’re only just learning those skills ourselves. But in part it’s because we would have to relinquish control. We’re reluctant to do that. A course in digital citizenship would help both students and teachers feel more at ease with one another when confronted by the noise online.

Make no mistake, this inflection point in education is going inevitably going to cross the gap between tertiary and secondary school and students. Students will be able to do for themselves in ways that were never possible before. None of this means that the teacher or even the administrator has necessarily become obsolete. But the secondary school of the mid-21st century may look a lot more like a website than campus. The classroom will have a fluid look, driven by the teacher, the students and the subject material.

Have we prepared students for this world? Have we given them the ability to make wise decisions about their own education? Or are we like those university administrators who mutter about how RateMyProfessors.com has ruined all their carefully-laid plans? The world where students were simply the passive consumers of an educational product is coming to an end. There are other products out there, clamoring for attention – you can thank Apple for that. And YouTube.

Once we get through this inflection point in the digital revolution in education, we arrive in a landscape that’s literally mind-blowing. We will each have access to educational resources far beyond anything on offer at any other time in human history. The dream of life-long learning will be simply a few clicks away for most of the billion people on the Internet, and many of the four billion who use mobiles. It will not be an easy transition, nor will it be perfect on the other side. But it will be incredible, a validation of everything Douglas Engelbart demonstrated forty years ago, and an opportunity to create a truly global educational culture, focused on excellence, and dedicated to serving all students, everywhere.

Crowdsource Yourself

I: Ruby Anniversary

Today is a very important day in the annals of computer science. It’s the anniversary of the most famous technology demo ever given. Not, as you might expect, the first public demonstration of the Macintosh (which happened in January 1984), but something far older and far more important. Forty years ago today, December 9th, 1968, in San Francisco, a small gathering of computer specialists came together to get their first glimpse of the future of computing. Of course, they didn’t know that the entire future of computing would emanate from this one demo, but the next forty years would prove that point.

The maestro behind the demo – leading a team of developers – was Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was a wunderkind from SRI, the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank spun out from Stanford University to collaborate with various moneyed customers – such as the US military – on future technologies. Of all the futurist technologists, Engelbart was the future-i-est.

In the middle of the 1960s, Engelbart had come to an uncomfortable realization: human culture was growing progressively more complex, while human intelligence stayed within the same comfortable range we’d known for thousands of years. In short order, Engelbart assessed, our civilization would start to collapse from its own complexity. The solution, Engelbart believed, would come from tools that could augment human intelligence. Create tools to make men smarter, and you’d be able to avoid the inevitable chaotic crash of an overcomplicated civilization.

To this end – and with healthy funding from both NASA and DARPA – Engelbart began work on the Online System, or NLS. The first problem in intelligence augmentation: how do you make a human being smarter? The answer: pair humans up with other humans. In other words, networking human beings together could increase the intelligence of every human being in the network. The NLS wasn’t just the online system, it was the networked system. Every NLS user could share resources and documents with other users. This meant NLS users would need to manage these resources in the system, so they needed high-quality computer screens, and a windowing system to keep the information separated. They needed an interface device to manage the windows of information, so Engelbart invented something he called a ‘mouse’.

I’ll jump to the chase: that roomful of academics at the Fall Joint Computer Conference saw the first broadly networked system featuring raster displays – the forerunner of all displays in use today; windowing; manipulation of on-screen information using a mouse; document storage and manipulation using the first hypertext system ever demonstrated, and videoconferencing between Engelbart, demoing in San Francisco, and his colleagues 30 miles away in Menlo Park.

In other words, in just one demo, Engelbart managed to completely encapsulate absolutely everything we’ve been working toward with computers over the last 40 years. The NLS was easily 20 years ahead of its time, but its influence is so pervasive, so profound, so dominating, that it has shaped nearly every major problem in human-computer interface design since its introduction. We have all been living in Engelbart’s shadow, basically just filling out the details in his original grand mission.

Of all the technologies rolled into the NLS demo, hypertext has arguably had the most profound impact. Known as the “Journal” on NLS, it allowed all the NLS users to collaboratively edit or view any of the documents in the NLS system. It was the first groupware application, the first collaborative application, the first wiki application. And all of this more than 20 years before the Web came into being. To Engelbart, the idea of networked computers and hypertext went hand-in-hand; they were indivisible, absolutely essential components of an online system.

It’s interesting to note that although the Internet has been around since 1969 – nearly as long as the NLS – it didn’t take off until the advent of a hypertext system – the World Wide Web. A network is mostly useless without a hypermedia system sitting on top of it, and multiplying its effectiveness. By itself a network is nice, but insufficient.

So, more than can be said for any other single individual in the field of computer science, we find ourselves living in the world that Douglas Engelbart created. We use computers with raster displays and manipulate windows of hypertext information using mice. We use tools like video conferencing to share knowledge. We augment our own intelligence by turning to others.

That’s why the “Mother of All Demos,” as it’s known today, is probably the most important anniversary in all of computer science. It set the stage the world we live in, more so that we recognized even a few years ago. You see, one part of Engelbart’s revolution took rather longer to play out. This last innovation of Engelbart’s is only just beginning.

II: Share and Share Alike

In January 2002, Oregon State University, the alma mater of Douglas Engelbart, decided to host a celebration of his life and work. I was fortunate enough to be invited to OSU to give a talk about hypertext and knowledge augmentation, an interest of mine and a persistent theme of my research. Not only did I get to meet the man himself (quite an honor), I got to meet some of the other researchers who were picking up where Engelbart had left off. After I walked off stage, following my presentation, one of the other researchers leaned over to me and asked, “Have you heard of Wikipedia?”

I had not. This is hardly surprising; in January 2002 Wikipedia was only about a year old, and had all of 14,000 articles – about the same number as a children’s encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, though it had put itself behind a “paywall,” had over a hundred thousand quality articles available online. Wikipedia wasn’t about to compete with Britannica. At least, that’s what I thought.

It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next few months – as Wikipedia approached 30,000 articles in English – an inflection point was reached, and Wikipedia started to grow explosively. In retrospect, what happened was this: people would drop by Wikipedia, and if they liked what they saw, they’d tell others about Wikipedia, and perhaps make a contribution. But they first had to like what they saw, and that wouldn’t happen without a sufficient number of articles, a sort of “critical mass” of information. While Wikipedia stayed beneath that critical mass it remained a toy, a plaything; once it crossed that boundary it became a force of nature, gradually then rapidly sucking up the collected knowledge of the human species, putting it into a vast, transparent and freely accessible collection. Wikipedia thrived inside a virtuous cycle where more visitors meant more contributors, which meant more visitors, which meant more contributors, and so on, endlessly, until – as of this writing, there are 2.65 million articles in the English language in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s biggest problem today isn’t attracting contributions, it’s winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Wikipedia has constant internal debates about whether a subject is important enough to deserve an entry in its own right; whether this person has achieved sufficient standards of notability to merit a biographical entry; whether this exploration of a fictional character in a fictional universe belongs in Wikipedia at all, or might be better situated within a dedicated fan wiki. Wikipedia’s success has been proven beyond all doubt; managing that success is the task of the day.

While we all rely upon Wikipedia more and more, we haven’t really given much thought as to what Wikipedia gives us. At its most basically level, Wikipedia gives us high-quality factual information. Within its major subject areas, Wikipedia’s veracity is unimpeachable, and has been put to the test by publications such as Nature. But what do these high-quality facts give us? The ability to make better decisions.

Given that we try to make decisions about our lives based on the best available information, the better that information is, the better our decisions will be. This seems obvious when spelled out like this, but it’s something we never credit Wikipedia with. We think about being able to answer trivia questions or research topics of current fascination, but we never think that every time we use Wikipedia to make a decision, we are improving our decision making ability. We are improving our own lives.

This is Engelbart’s final victory. When I met him in 2002, he seemed mostly depressed by the advent of the Web. At that time – pre-Wikipedia, pre-Web2.0 – the Web was mostly thought of as a publishing medium, not as something that would allow the multi-way exchange of ideas. Engelbart has known for forty years that sharing information is the cornerstone to intelligence augmentation. And in 2002 there wasn’t a whole lot of sharing going on.

It’s hard to imagine the Web of 2002 from our current vantage point. Today, when we think about the Web, we think about sharing, first and foremost. The web is a sharing medium. There’s still quite a bit of publishing going on, but that seems almost an afterthought, the appetizer before the main course. I’d have to imagine that this is pleasing Engelbart immensely, as we move ever closer to the models he pioneered forty years ago. It’s taken some time for the world to catch up with his vision, but now we seem to have a tool fit for knowledge augmentation. And Wikipedia is really only one example of the many tools we have available for knowledge augmentation. Every sharing tool – Digg, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, Twitter, and so on – provides an equal opportunity to share and to learn from what others have shared. We can pool our resources more effectively than at any other time in history.

The question isn’t, “Can we do it?” The question is, “What do we want to do?” How do we want to increase our intelligence and effectiveness through sharing?

III: Crowdsource Yourself

Now we come to all of you, here together for three days, to teach and to learn, to practice and to preach. Most of you are the leaders in your particular schools and institutions. Most of you have gone way out on the digital limb, far ahead of your peers. Which means you’re alone. And it’s not easy being alone. Pioneers can always be identified by the arrows in their backs.

So I have a simple proposal to put to you: these three days aren’t simply an opportunity to bring yourselves up to speed on the latest digital wizardry, they’re a chance to increase your intelligence and effectiveness, through sharing.

All of you, here today, know a huge amount about what works and what doesn’t, about curricula and teaching standards, about administration and bureaucracy. This is hard-won knowledge, gained on the battlefields of your respective institutions. Now just imagine how much it could benefit all of us if we shared it, one with another. This is the sort of thing that happens naturally and casually at a forum like this: a group of people will get to talking, and, sooner or later, all of the battle stories come out. Like old Diggers talking about the war.

I’m asking you to think about this casual process a bit more formally: How can you use the tools on offer to capture and share everything you’ve learned? If you don’t capture it, it can’t be shared. If you don’t share it, it won’t add to our intelligence. So, as you’re learning how to podcast or blog or setup a wiki, give a thought to how these tools can be used to multiply our effectiveness.

I ask you to do this because we’re getting close to a critical point in the digital revolution – something I’ll cover in greater detail when I talk to you again on Thursday afternoon. Where we are right now is at an inflection point. Things are very fluid, and could go almost any direction. That’s why it’s so important we learn from each other: in that pooled knowledge is the kind of intelligence which can help us to make better decisions about the digital revolution in education. The kinds of decisions which will lead to better outcomes for kids, fewer headaches for administrators, and a growing confidence within the teaching staff.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a panacea. Far from it. They’re simply the best tools we’ve got, right now, to help us confront the range of thorny issues raised by the transition to digital education. You can spend three days here, and go back to your own schools none the wiser. Or, you can share what you’ve learned and leave here with the best that everyone has to offer.

There’s a word for this process, a word which powers Wikipedia and a hundred thousand other websites: “crowdsourcing”. The basic idea is encapsulated in a Chinese proverb: “Many hands make light work.” The two hundred of you, here today, can all pitch in and make light work for yourselves. Or not.

Let me tell you another story, which may help seal your commitment to share what you know. In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc.

Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, or RateMyProfessors.com, or the promise of your own work over these next three days, Douglas Engelbart’s original vision of intelligence augmentation holds true: it is possible for us to pool our intellectual resources, and increase our problem-solving capacity. We do it every time we use Wikipedia; students do it every time they use RateMyProfessors.com; and I’m asking you to do it, starting right now. Good luck!

The Alexandrine Dilemma

I: Crash Through or Crash

We live in a time of wonders, and, more often than not, remain oblivious to them until they fail catastrophically. On the 19th of October, 1999 we saw such a failure. After years of preparation, on that day the web-accessible version of Encyclopedia Britannica went on-line. The online version of Britannica contained the complete, unexpurgated content of the many-volume print edition, and it was freely available, at no cost to its users.

I was not the only person who dropped by on the 19th to sample Britannica’s wares. Several million others joined me – all at once. The Encyclopedia’s few servers suddenly succumbed to the overload of traffic – the servers crashed, the network connections crashed, everything crashed. When the folks at Britannica conducted a forensic analysis of the failure, they learned something shocking: the site had crashed because, within its first hours, it had attracted nearly fifty million visitors.

The Web had never seen anything like that before. Yes, there were search engines such as Yahoo! and AltaVista (and even Google), but destination websites never attracted that kind of traffic. Britannica, it seemed, had tapped into a long-standing desire for high-quality factual information. As the gold-standard reference work in the English language, Britannica needed no advertising to bring traffic to its web servers – all it need do was open its doors. Suddenly, everyone doing research, or writing a paper, or just plain interested in learning more about something tried to force themselves through Britannica’s too narrow doorway.

Encyclopedia Britannica ordered some more servers, and installed a bigger pipe to the Internet, and within a few weeks was back in business. Immediately Britannica became one of the most-trafficked sites on the Web, as people came through in search of factual certainty. Yet for all of that traffic, Britannica somehow managed to lose money.

The specifics of this elude my understanding. The economics of the Web are very simple: eyeballs equals money. The more eyeballs you have, the more money you earn. That’s as true for Google as for Britannica. Yet, somehow, despite having one of the busiest websites in the world, Britannica lost money. For that reason, just a few month after it freely opened its doors to the public, Britannica hid itself behind a “paywall”, asking seven dollars a month as a fee to access its inner riches. Immediately, traffic to Britannica dropped to perhaps a hundredth of its former numbers. Britannica did not convert many of its visitors to paying customers: there may be a strong desire for factual information, but even so, most people did not consider it worth paying for. Instead, individuals continued to search for a freely available, high quality source of factual information.

Into this vacuum Wikipedia was born. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit has always been freely available, and, because of its use of the Creative Commons license, can be freely copied. Wikipedia was the modern birth of “crowdsourcing”, the idea that vast numbers of anonymous individuals can labor together (at a distance) on a common project. Wikipedia’s openness in every respect – transparent edits, transparent governance, transparent goals – encouraged participation. People were invited to come by and sample the high-quality factual information on offer – and were encouraged to leave their own offerings. The high-quality facts encouraged visitors; some visitors would leave their own contributions, high-quality facts which would encourage more visitors, and so, in a “virtuous cycle”, Wikipedia grew as large as, then far larger than Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, we don’t even give a thought to Britannica. It may be the gold-standard reference work in the English language, but no one cares. Wikipedia is good enough, accurate enough (although Wikipedia was never intended to be a competitor to Britannica by 2005 Nature was doing comparative testing of article accuracy) and is much more widely available. Britannica has had its market eaten up by Wikipedia, a market it dominated for two hundred years. It wasn’t the server crash that doomed Britannica; when the business minds at Britannica tried to crash through into profitability, that’s when they crashed into the paywall they themselves established. Watch carefully: over the next decade we’ll see the somewhat drawn out death of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

Just a few weeks ago, the European Union launched a new website, Europeana. Europeana is a repository, a collection of cultural heritage of Europe, made freely available to everyone in the world via the Web. From Descartes to Darwin to Debussy, Europeana hopes to become the online cultural showcase of European thought.

The creators of Europeana scoured Europe’s cultural institutions for items to be digitized and placed within its own collection. Many of these institutions resisted their requests – they didn’t see any demand for these items coming from online communities. As it turns out, these institutions couldn’t have been more wrong. Europeana launched on the 20th of November, and, like Britannica before it, almost immediately crashed. The servers overloaded as visitors from throughout the EU came in to look at the collection. Europeana has been taken offline for a few months, as the EU buys more servers and fatter pipes to connect it all to the Internet. Sometime late in 2008 it will relaunch, and, if its brief popularity is any indication, we can expect Europeana to become another important online resource, like Wikipedia.

All three of these examples prove that there is an almost insatiable interest in factual information made available online, whether the dry articles of Wikipedia or the more bouncy cultural artifacts of Europeana. It’s also clear that arbitrarily restricting access to factual information simply directs the flow around the institution restricting access. Britannica could be earning over a hundred million dollars a year from advertising revenue – that’s what it is projected that Wikipedia could earn, just from banner advertisements, if it ever accepted advertising. But Britannica chose to lock itself away from its audience. That is the one unpardonable sin in the network era: under no circumstances do you take yourself off the network. We all have to sink or swim, crash through or crash, in this common sea of openness.

I only hope that the European museums who have donated works to Europeana don’t suddenly grow possessive when the true popularity of their works becomes a proven fact. That will be messy, and will only hurt the institutions. Perhaps they’ll heed the lesson of Britannica; but it seems as though many of our institutions are mired in older ways of thinking, where selfishness and protecting the collection are seen as a cardinal virtues. There’s a new logic operating: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.

II: The Universal Library

Just a few weeks ago, Google took this idea to new heights. In a landmark settlement of a long-running copyright dispute with book publishers in the United States, Google agreed to pay a license fee to those publishers for their copyrights – even for books out of print. In return, the publishers are allowing Google to index, search and display all of the books they hold under copyright. Google already provides the full text of many books which have an expired copyright – their efforts scanning whole libraries at Harvard and Stanford has given Google access to many such texts. Each of these texts is indexed and searchable – just as with the books under copyright, but, in this case, the full text is available through Google’s book reader tool. For works under copyright but out-of-print, Google is now acting as the sales agent, translating document searches into book sales for the publishers, who may now see huge “long tail” revenues generated from their catalogues.

Since Google is available from every computer connected to the Internet (given that it is available on most mobile handsets, it’s available to nearly every one of the four billion mobile subscribers on the planet), this new library – at least seven million volumes – has become available everywhere. The library has become coextensive with the Internet.

This was an early dream both of the pioneers of the personal computing, and, later, of the Web. When CD-ROM was introduced, twenty years ago, it was hailed as the “new papyrus,” capable of storing vast amounts of information in a richly hyperlinked format. As the limits of CD-ROM became apparent, the Web became the repository of the hopes of all the archivists and bibliophiles who dreamed of a new Library of Alexandria, a universal library with every text in every tongue freely available to all.

We have now gotten as close to that ideal as copyright law will allow; everything is becoming available, though perhaps not as freely as a librarian might like. (For libraries, Google has established subscription-based fees for access to books covered by copyright.) Within another few years, every book within arm’s length of Google (and Google has many, many arms) will be scanned, indexed and accessible through books.google.com. This library can be brought to bear everywhere anyone sits down before a networked screen. This library can serve billions, simultaneously, yet never exhaust its supply of texts.

What does this mean for the library as we have known it? Has Google suddenly obsolesced the idea of a library as a building stuffed with books? Is there any point in going into the stacks to find a book, when that same book is equally accessible from your laptop? Obviously, books are a better form factor than our laptops – five hundred years of human interface design have given us a format which is admirably well-adapted to our needs – but in most cases, accessibility trumps ease-of-use. If I can have all of the world’s books online, that easily bests the few I can access within any given library.

In a very real sense, Google is obsolescing the library, or rather, one of the features of the library, the feature we most identify with the library: book storage. Those books are now stored on servers, scattered in multiple, redundant copies throughout the world, and can be called up anywhere, at any time, from any screen. The library has been obsolesced because it has become universal; the stacks have gone virtual, sitting behind every screen. Because the idea of the library has become so successful, so universal, it no longer means anything at all. We are all within the library.

III: The Necessary Army

With the triumph of the universal library, we must now ask: What of the librarians? If librarians were simply the keepers-of-the-books, we would expect them to fade away into an obsolescence similar to the physical libraries. And though this is the popular perception of the librarian, in fact that is perhaps the least interesting of the tasks a librarian performs (although often the most visible).

The central task of the librarian – if I can be so bold as to state something categorically – is to bring order to chaos. The librarian takes a raw pile of information and makes it useful. How that happens differs from situation to situation, but all of it falls under the rubric of library science. At its most visible, the book cataloging systems used in all libraries represents the librarian’s best efforts to keep an overwhelming amount of information well-managed and well-ordered. A good cataloging system makes a library easy to use, whatever its size, however many volumes are available through its stacks.

It’s interesting to note that books.google.com uses Google’s text search-based interface. Based on my own investigations, you can’t type in a Library of Congress catalog number and get a list of books under that subject area. Google seems to have abandoned – or ignored – library science in its own book project. I can’t tell you why this is, I can only tell you that it looks very foolish and naïve. It may be that Google’s army of PhDs do not include many library scientists. Otherwise why would you have made such a beginner’s mistake? It smells of an amateur effort from a firm which is not known for amateurism.

It’s here that we can see the shape of the future, both in the immediate and longer term. People believe that because we’ve done with the library, we’re done with library science. They could not be more wrong. In fact, because the library is universal, library science now needs to be a universal skill set, more broadly taught than at any time previous to this. We have become a data-centric culture, and are presently drowning in data. It’s difficult enough for us to keep our collections of music and movies well organized; how can we propose to deal with collections that are a hundred thousand times larger?

This is not just some idle speculation; we are rapidly becoming a data-generating species. Where just a few years ago we might generate just a small amount of data on a given day or in a given week, these days we generate data almost continuously. Consider: every text message sent, every email received, every snap of a camera or camera phone, every slip of video shared amongst friends. It all adds up, and it all needs to be managed and stored and indexed and retrieved with some degree of ease. Otherwise, in a few years time the recent past will have disappeared into the fog of unsearchability. In order to have a connection to our data selves of the past, we are all going to need to become library scientists.

All of which puts you in a key position for the transformation already underway. You get to be the “life coaches” for our digital lifestyle, because, as these digital artifacts start to weigh us down (like Jacob Marley’s lockboxes), you will provide the guidance that will free us from these weights. Now that we’ve got it, it’s up to you to tell us how we find it. Now that we’ve captured it, it’s up to you to tell us how we index it.

We have already taken some steps along this journey: much of the digital media we create can now be “tagged”, that is, assigned keywords which provide context and semantic value for the media. We each create “clouds” of our own tags which evolve into “folksonomies”, or home-made taxonomies of meaning. Folksonomies and tagging are useful, but we lack the common language needed to make our digital treasures universally useful. If I tag a photograph with my own tags, that means the photograph is more useful to me; but it is not necessarily more broadly useful. Without a common, public taxonomy (a cataloging system), tagging systems will not scale into universality. That universality has value, because it allows us to extend our searches, our view, and our capability.

I could go on and on, but the basic point is this: wherever data is being created, that’s the opportunity for library science in the 21st century. Since data is being created almost absolutely everywhere, the opportunities for library science are similarly broad. It’s up to you to show us how it’s done, lest we drown in our own creations.

Some of this won’t come to pass until you move out of the libraries and into the streets. Library scientists have to prove their worth; most people don’t understand that they’re slowly drowning in a sea of their own information. This means you have to demonstrate other ways of working that are self-evident in their effectiveness. The proof of your value will be obvious. It’s up to you to throw the rest of us a life-preserver; once we’ve caught it, once we’ve caught on, your future will be assured.

The dilemma that confronts us is that for the next several years, people will be questioning the value of libraries; if books are available everywhere, why pay the upkeep on a building? Yet the value of a library is not the books inside, but the expertise in managing data. That can happen inside of a library; it has to happen somewhere. Libraries could well evolve into the resource the public uses to help manage their digital existence. Librarians will become partners in information management, indispensable and highly valued.

In a time of such radical and rapid change, it’s difficult to know exactly where things are headed. We know that books are headed online, and that libraries will follow. But we still don’t know the fate of librarians. I believe that the transition to a digital civilization will founder without a lot of fundamental input from librarians. We are each becoming archivists of our lives, but few of us have training in how to manage an archive. You are the ones who have that knowledge. Consider: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. The more you share your knowledge, the more invaluable you become. That’s the future that waits for you.

Finally, consider the examples of Britannica and Europeana. The demand for those well-curated collections of information far exceeded even the wildest expectations of their creators. Something similar lies in store for you. When you announce yourselves to the broader public as the individuals empowered to help us manage our digital lives, you’ll doubtless find yourselves overwhelmed with individuals who are seeking to benefit from your expertise. What’s more, to deal with the demand, I expect Library Science to become one of the hot subjects of university curricula of the 21st century. We need you, and we need a lot more of you, if we ever hope to make sense of the wonderful wealth of data we’re creating.