Some musings on the Trend Report Update
The IFLA Trend Report 2017 Update was released at the end of last year and provides fascinating insights into how two particular trends could impact libraries and librarians. The first is the rise of artificial intelligence and the second is additive manufacturing.
The first essay in the report is by Karl Schroeder, a Canadian Futurist who uses Strategic Foresight methodology to approach the future. I was involved in a research project using strategic foresight back in 2013 when the Victorian Public Library Network and State Library Victoria developed the Victorian Public Libraries 2030 Strategic Framework. As the author of this report, Steve Tighe explains: Strategic foresight is the study of the future for the purpose of improving decision making. The purpose is not to get the future right, but to make better decisions; and it works back from the future, as opposed to projecting forward from the present. It provides a logical framework for understanding social change and planning for the future.
Karl Schroeder uses storytelling to suggest a future of ‘antilibraries’ – “huge, apparently authoritative virtual banks of information that can disappear or be changed even more quickly than they emerge.” He invites us to imagine an antilibrary. “It contains nothing but falsehoods, blind alleys and discouragement; its purpose is not to educate, but to mislead. The antilibrary comprise millions of texts, articles and essays, all apparently written buy authoritative historical figures, there are biographies of these authors – all fabricated – and histories of their squabbles and duels and the various schools of thought that have grown up around them. The library contains many scientific treatises that cite one another in exhaustive detail; it holds records of experiments on the qualities of Aethyr, * books on political scandals that never happened, and maps of continents that don’t exist. All of these obfuscations are mixed up with reference to real people and true historic events, but seamlessly. The antilibrary is a maze without exits.” (p7)
And so, after painting this future, what might that mean for us now? Schroeder sets the scene by describing how traditionally knowledge has been subject to inertia – that there is a stability to knowledge because of the costs associated with producing, disseminating and preserving information. This has led to libraries, a “literal vault for centuries of handcrafted reasoning, argument, and experimentation.” In foreseeing a future where antilibraries exist, he suggests a way to avoid this antilibrary future. He says that there are three kinds of inertia that information needs to have in order to be preserved as knowledge – social inertia, physical inertia and digital inertia. We have to preserve the institution of the library and the librarian (social inertia); we have to acknowledge that the actual real-world library and the physical book continue to have value (physical inertia); and blockchain technology may provide digital objects with the kind of provenance that only physical items have had until now (digital inertia.)
Artificial intelligence could create this future of antilibraries. And it could (almost certainly will) create the future described by Nick Ashton-Hart in the second essay of the report, when “automation and artificial intelligence will transform employment and production, eliminating between 9 and 47% of all jobs…what is certain is that even in the most advanced economies those working today will need life-long training and education opportunities that our societies simply don’t provide now, as they migrate between the jobs of today and those that will replace them.” (p10)
Ashton-Hart believes that libraries must be “at the heart of reimagining education for everyone” because it will not be possible to provide education for everyone the way that it is delivered now. To provide lifelong education for all, internet connectivity is essential for both libraries and citizens, and “bringing the rest of the world’s population online will pay dividends for all.”
The second trend that has been identified in the report is additive manufacturing. Ivan Owen, who is the Makerspace Lab Manager at the University of Washington, describes 3D printing as a catch-all term which refers to the broad field of additive manufacturing. This is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing which involves starting with a given material and removing bits of it until something is produced - additive manufacturing progressively adds layers of material until something is produced. He says that the “public availability of 3D printing and makerspaces creates new possibilities for communities…developing makerspaces appears to be a natural extension of how libraries have historically provided access to computers and audio/visual technologies as well as their role as community centres.” Foreseeing this future of 3D printing opens up opportunities for libraries to provide spaces where users can “engage in research and development to make contributions to an active global open- source community.”
Karl Schroeder believes that “There is a long life ahead for the people, places and things that preserve knowledge.” We all need to believe this and act on it.
* an element or spirit in many forms of metaphysics and occultism. Aethyr, in the Enochian tradition, one of a succession of worlds (or "planes") viewed as surrounding, penetrating, and extending beyond the material world in arts and entertainment. (Wikipedia)