Tag Archives: Impact of technology

Librarians Face Digital Dilemmas with Principles, Experience & Concern for Patrons’ Rights

As the nation grapples with the Faustian choice between the right to know and the right to privacy, librarians should have a place at the table.  From time immemorial they have struggled to balance the rights.  Librarians have staunchly fought for open government and gone to jail to protect their patrons’ privacy against over-zealous government snooping.  The fact is that librarians think a lot about information; as one observer writes, they are “information connoisseurs.”

Thousands of librarians are gathered this week in Chicago where they will find grounding in traditional principles honed in a print environment to face the challenges of a digital world.   Though the ramifications are incalculable, none is more center stage than those that juxtapose the dilemma between access and privacy now challenging the nation.

Unreconstructed advocate for open government that I am, I am proud of the library profession for its staunch commitment to privacy.  Wise professionals have anticipated the threats to patrons’ privacy.  Towards this end the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom maintains a robust library of digital resources devoted to the principle that the preserving “the freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy.”

In a recent position paper the Office of Intellectual Freedom directly faces the tension between the right to access and the right to privacy.  The report makes the clear distinction between personal and public information.  At the same time OIF anticipates the confusion facing Americans in the wake of leaks of government and attendant charges and challenges:

When the right to privacy is eroded or stripped away, people are more likely to abandon or curtail their exploration of unpopular and unorthodox points of view.  This chilling effect puts the intellectual development of our citizenry at risk.  The very character of the American mind, which is premised on open inquiry, is thereby robbed of the free flow of ideas that makes innovation possible.

In the past, closing a curtain, sealing a record, or simply choosing not to share one’s information could protect privacy.   But emerging technologies are compromising privacy rights and changing social norms.  Computers, online networks and databases collect and store personal information, which may then be freely traded among government offices, corporations, and law enforcement agencies without an individual’s knowledge or consent.  Few people protest when they are required to give away their personal information Identity theft and data breaches are occurring more frequently – confirmation that individuals can no longer feel confident that the institutions holding their information are treating it with due care and consideration.

Other privacy rights are equally at risk.  Concerns about national security and crime have spurred political interest groups and law enforcements agencies to question traditional expectations of privacy.  These groups are now advocating changes in the law that diminish stator privacy protections and permit the government to peer into personal lives.

 Librarians who have their professional fingers on the pulse of the public and of the technology know that in a digital age Americans must be responsible for their own information privacy.   As usual, they know that ultimate responsibility for protection of individual rights an informed public.  The concern is that many people who routinely use public access facilities are unaware of the potential intrusion on their right to privacy. As part of Choose Privacy Week 2013 the ALA posted a useful tip sheet for patrons entitled Protect Your Privacy While Using Public Computers & Wi-Fi appropriate for libraries or any other public setting.

The usual suspects – politicians, propagandists and pundits – would do well to update their stereotypes and pull up some chairs for the librarians who have spent their professional lives cogitating digital age dichotomies long before they went viral.


Why Worrying about Technology Really Matters

Last Sunday the Star Tribune editorial board pondered the question “What should we really fear?”   The editorial flowed from a question originally posed by John  Brockman, editor of Edge.com. whom the writers describe as “the uber literary agent, cultural impresario and best friend to the world’s smartest people.”  Though I was not on Brockman’s list of gurus the question (originally posed as ‘what should we worry about?’) has intrigued me all week.

Technology, the respondents concurred, is today’s bête noir.  More specifically, “we should worry about the interplay between humans and technology.”

The Strib editors posed a spate of provocative questions that the response generated with them.  Following their lead I’ve struggled with my personal answer, clearly based not on native intelligence but on a long life spent coping with and thinking about the implications of technology.

Two related questions raised by the editors’ concern whether we have the “mental capacity to properly analyze the enormous flow of data that drives our decisions? “ and “Can we depend on the judgments of search engines? “   Of course we have the mental capacity to analyze, what we need is the mental capacity and the will to organize the stuff!  Re. trusting the search engines – not till they’re ruled by librarians.

Next, the editors pose the question whether technology will stunt human curiosity.  The technology remains blameless; it’s the delivery systems.  Curiosity, like hope, springs eternal until it’s stunted by a system fashioned by bureaucratic – or diabolical – executives who crack the whips in countless institutional settings in which intellectual curiosity and creativity die aborning.

Does technology make us more parochial?  Though we are undeniably more parochial it is not technology that we should censure – or censor.  It is ownership, management of technology, regulation and understanding of the possibilities that determine its application.  Afloat in an info tsunami spawned by technology we grab the nearest lifeboat where we hunker down with and reinforce each other with a turgid exchange of ignorance.

In answer to the question “Does technology render systems more vulnerable to all sorts of catastrophe?“  we have vast evidence to the positive.  Forewarned is fore-armed.

The editorial writers next ask the question “Does technology devalue the written word?”   The form of expression isn’t really at issue.  Our challenge is to focus on content, not format.   The well-wrought written word is the result of careful thought.   We haven’t figured out yet how to pack that clear thinking into a tweet.  What we do know is that it is digital technology that is opening the archival treasures of humankind to today’s learners.  It is also technology that enables us to thoughtfully edit a document or execute the great American novel.

The questions raised by Brockman, expanded by the Strib editorial board, deserve far better that these glib retorts.  Still, for me the taking time to worry about the potential and the perils of technology is the grand adventure of living in the 21st Century.  We have the challenge and some of the tools to shape a world that is more just, wise, peaceful, healthy.

That’s why every society and every living person needs the power, the tools, the information age skills, the knowledge, the will ,  the motivation, and the freedom to engage.  The issues are far too complex and compelling to be left to The Deciders .

This is not the time to worry about, much less fear, the technology – it’s time to tame the technology and to affirm and profess from the rooftops that oday’s technology is created by human beings to enhance, not restrict, the species.