Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Do not track...

According to a New York Times article by Natasha Singer (13 October 2012), 9 members of the US House of Representatives questioned the Federal Trade Commission's "involvement with an international group called the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which is trying to work out global standards for the don’t-track-me features." What apparently has them distressed is that "do not track" may become the default in, for example, Microsoft's new version of its Internet Explorer browser.

Defaults are important, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explain in their Nudge.blog. People tend to accept defaults rather than change them, and this is true for a wide variety of topics including pension plans, health care, and privacy. Those who control the choice of the default arguably determine what a majority will decide. This is not surprising, since we accept cultural defaults all the time in matters as basic as food and clothes. 

After years of working on operating systems and on network applications, I am perhaps less concerned about privacy than many of my colleagues for quite contradictory reasons: first, because I realize that anyone with the right technical skills can break ordinary privacy protections in the Internet, and second, because I realize that it is a lot of work and mostly not worth the trouble.  Nonetheless some regard for privacy seems basic to how free and democratic societies operate in the HTTP environment. Microsoft seems to have consumer interests more at heart than  the nine US congressmen.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Information Technology history

Some while ago I began to put together an historical timeline on digital library developments. The timeline began relatively informally, but lately I have started to add references to source materials. It is very much a work in progress, but I would be happy to have suggestions for more entries. Anyone may view the timeline, but only I can update it at the moment.

Digital libraries and in a broader sense the world of information technology is relatively young, but it has become old enough that some attention to its history seems increasingly warranted. ASIS&T has, for example, a webpage devoted to the history of information science and technology. Professional historians are starting to take an interest as well, including colleagues at Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin.

The social and legal issues are complex and interesting, and increasingly students need enough historical background in the history of technology to discuss topics like copyright or censorship or even the effect of technology on elections (such as the current US presidential election). We also have an imperfect understanding about the interaction between innovation and users, except that in some cases users quickly adopted new developments (HTML, for example) and in other cases innovations like the mouse sat fallow for years. Questions about the innovation/demand cycle play a key role in discussions about the industrial revolution. Whether the dynamics are similar or not I have too little evidence to judge.

This blog has been quiet for some time, but I plan to use it more regularly to discuss issues about the history of information technology precisely because I hope for comments from readers.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

30 Years of Information Technology

Library Hi Tech has been celebrating its thirtieth year with a number of special issues, and the latest issue looks back on the development of information technology for libraries. Below is the structured abstract for my editorial. I will include a  link when the issue is available online.

Purpose: This issue of Library Hi Tech offers a retrospective over the last thirty years of information technology as used in libraries and other memory institutions, particularly archives and museums. This editorial will add the editors’ reflections.
Method: The method uses historical documentation and relies heavily on personal recollection. 
Findings: Thirty years ago information technology in libraries largely had to do with ways in which libraries could make their ordinary operations more efficient. Today the information science frontier has broken out of the comfortable institutional paradigm of the past and made libraries aware that they need to redefine themselves in a world where their buildings no longer represent a storehouse of knowledge unavailable elsewhere.
Implications: Information technology advances have not made libraries obsolete, but they have made it imperative that libraries redefine their role to be digital information managers and service providers for their readers.