Monthly Archives: October 2015

Virtual Reality

Travelling to London by train the other day, I was struck by the silence in a carriage filled with people. A single voice could be heard, talking loudly about “marketing strategies going forward”. Despite a warm autumnal sun shimmering outside on morning mist, the light inside the carriage was cold and blue-tinged.

No-one was asleep however.

The carriage, as such, was in reality empty. Its occupants were all elsewhere, prosthetically displaced.

The photographer Eric Pickersgill would describe them as removed. I would recommend his photographic essay on “the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.” The images are chillingly familiar.

A Question from the Floor

It sometimes happens that a conference, though not quite living up to its billing, prompts a delayed-action response. This happened to me the other day.

3:30 pm. The last presentation ends. The mood is one of nostalgia, the air a little stale. Almost before having been served up, the accumulated Powerpoints have exceeded their sell-by date and lie neglected in the delegate pack. Dog-eared sandwiches await removal by catering.

Comfort break. I head outside for some fresh air.

Seated on a bench in the square, an elderly man frowns into his newspaper. The news is grim.
His canine companion bounds about at his feet, undeterred by world affairs, anticipating the simple gesture that will renew his joie de vivre, boundless, never waning.

But the ball remains at his master’s feet.

Again, please.

There is no response, no renewal of bliss, but this dog is not one to whimper.
He picks the ball up in his jaws and deposits it in his master’s lap, gooily.
With just the faintest irritation, the man tosses the ball away, his eyes still fixed on the daily horror.

We humans are not so easily pleased.

3:45: Plenary. “So what’s the next disruptive technology?” comes the question from the floor.
We need our fix.

The panel concurs. Personalised dashboards are what our customers want now. We have data and it’s big and intelligent and will tell customers what they need to know before they realise they need to know it.

Yes, and customers are concerned about their privacy online. It is our duty to protect it.

Many heads nod.

Outside, the man on the park bench is feeling the tremors of the clash of democracy and fundamentalism. He dreads the disruption of world order.

Inside, no such reverberations are felt.
Personalisation and privacy have yet to collide.

5:50 pm on the train. I muse that perhaps this imminent collision is indeed the next digital disruption.


A short story


The other day a colleague sent me a link to a paper in the Journal of Academic Librarianship entitled “Imagining Library 4.0: Creating a Model for Future Libraries” (Younghee Noh 2015). As I was shortly to attend a briefing on digital strategies for mobile technologies in academic libraries, I decided it would make good preliminary reading.

I got a bit carried away. What follows is not a review, merely a flight of fancy.

Partial Immersion

I have set aside some time at the end of the day to read a serious-looking paper on the future of academic libraries. I am looking forward to it and dive in confidently; this will be good mental exercise. Bline 1 of paragraph 2 of the Introduction my pace has slowed. 

I become a little queasy when I read that

“the age is fast approaching when technology and humanity will merge and become one.”

For a moment I worry that I am losing focus. I adjust my glasses.

In the very next paragraph, I learn that we will soon no longer have to search for anything because

“Web 4.0 will only provide information suitable for users by integrating all the known data about their identity.”

The queasiness turns to wobbliness. I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is a scholarly paper.

The next few paragraphs soothe me, like a gentle swim in the Med in September. Next-Generation Digital Libraries already have an acronym and are on the move, socially engaged, ambitious.

But then I stub my toe on a rock when I read that one of the key concepts of Library 4.0 is something called life string . What on earth?

The reference is to an enticingly relevant source “On the move with the mobile web: Libraries and mobile technologies” (Kroski, 2009), so I click on the link.

Error 404 File not Found. I must contact the administration of the e-LIS e-prints in library and information science repository. The key ‘life string’ concept must remain a mystery for now. It’s probably for the best; after all, Web 4.0 only provides information which is suitable for me.
It must be a hint that I am getting out of my depth.

The paragraphs which follow confirm this suspicion. They tell me how to read the paper – the methodology section. I pay attention, concentrate on my technique.

Then someone splashes water in my face. Mind where you’re going!

Yes, sorry. Web 4.0 will be a “read, write, execute, and concur web” where we will co-operate with “ultra-intelligent electronic agents” so that “massive social communities can be effectively organized”.
Can’t have people barging around any old where.spy-161x300

Noting that I am not a strong swimmer, they offer me a “super-smart electronic agent embedded with small cameras.” It will not only help my swimming but “manage all aspects of daily life […] from the moment of waking up in the morning, just like a secretary or friend.”
I politely decline and try a bit of backstroke.

The problem with backstroke is you lose your sense of direction. The next six or seven paragraphs take me round in circles. But I shouldn’t worry about getting lost. “Web 4.0 will […] let researchers know information suitable to their research […] even when they are in a different place.” Well, that’s a relief.

I find my bearings and strike out for the shore, invigorated. This Web 4.0 thing is growing on me; it’s “a generation-changing concept to make society a better place through innovation.” I’m dying for a snack after the swim but remind myself that at my age I must eat sensibly. What fun it will be to have a smart plate that knows what’s on it and whether it’s good for me.

My son is waiting for me. “Where have you been, Dad? We were getting worried.” I feel old.
An earlier phrase I had glossed over re-surfaces, “[web] development between generations has come faster and faster, with each generation having a shorter lifespan”. I wrap myself in my towel, suddenly chilly.

A chart drives home the point. Two curves, one sharply upward, one gradually downward: the amount of data on the web, mapped to my confidence, at least I think that’s what it’s saying.

Feeling vulnerable, I decide to try to impress my son. I say “Son, did you know that the internet of the future is going to be about “reading, writing, and simultaneous execution?” He looks at me anxiously and offers me a biscuit.

How do I explain? Helpfully, there is a summary table to help me gather my thoughts. Trying to be succinct, it tells me that “DumpFind and Hakia” in Web 2.0 have been replaced by “Swoogle and Intellidimension” in Web 3.0. I don’t know what it is about tables.

My concentration now dwindling, I am distracted by a button at the foot of the table glowing green. “Table options” it says. I click. A menu advises me to “View in workspace.” Not on the beach.

My wife protests “Must we always talk about your work?”

OK, I’ll take a pause.

I need to digest what I’ve read and the next few paragraphs seem to repeat themselves. My stomach rumbles. “Let’s go for a pizza.”


This is the first instalment. I’ll post the second when I’ve finished reading the paper, which is excellent, I should add.