At the Only Edge that Means Anything / How We Understand What We Do
by Dennis Brunning (Director, The Design School Library, Arizona State University) <[email protected]>
The Last Library on Earth
It’s too soon to say, but my TV addicted pals figure the new Fox comedy “The Last Man on Earth” will take with Sunday’s fickle audiences, long enough, at least, to produce a few memes. The library is dead, the library lives!
Phil Miller, played by former SNL and Nebraska actor Will Forte ends up in Tucson, Arizona after a futile tour of the United States looking for living people. They’ve disappeared because of a virus. Nothing remains except the artifacts of American culture. And Phil.
Once Phil concludes he’s alone, he plans his suicide, just not wanting to live alone. He can have anything that remains but quickly learns it isn’t much. He paints a target in red and white on a big solid boulder and takes aim with his old pick-up truck. Good idea, except the old F150 doesn’t have much horsepower to gain much speed. Phil has too much time and manages to give one last look-around to his kingdom. He sees smoke. Rising. In the distance.
At her own campsite, the last woman in the world lives. That would be Carol Pilbasian, played by the comedian and actor Kristen Schaal. Phil drives over. He finds a pink bra.
They begin a reverse creation story. Phil and Carol find out quickly they are not match.com matches. They realize, though, they must recreate civilization from scratch.
They reverse engineer life from the junk of man. To irrigate a tomato garden Phil reads up at the public library about this sort of thing. No running water, no electricity, no Wikipedia. But there is a library.
It’s a comedy, so there’s no big lesson here except for the fun of watching ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — or bringing man to woman, woman to man, and order on a world whose switch has been turned off.
As librarians, we have to delight in imagining a library as a useful place when all is doomed. I’ve got a former colleague who went from the library to better things, warning me to get into gear and save libraries from a fate of becoming mausoleums. Because of the Internet and Google and all of that.
Now I can point to the Fox Sunday night primetime line-up and do a re-direct of the common wisdom. It takes a library after, well, whatever.
Of course, Phil could, for amusement, at anytime burn the library down for fun. He still has matches and there is all sorts of kindling. He won’t though. He needs those tomatoes. And eventually some tips of midwifery — because she, our Eve of Tucson, feels a moral imperative and a stirring in her loins, all is not lost on the last man on Earth.
Let’s Book Data and Goliath
Schneier, Bruce. Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.
The public library is trusted, isn’t it? The public doesn’t fear librarians will give away information about its patrons. Privacy is etched into our DNA. Few believe use of it is at risk of being divulged to authorities or corporations. We respect contracts, patron records; we don’t look over shoulders at computer screens. We don’t care what you are reading or what you are looking at. True, we’ve often filtered pornography and hate speech. We are the good parent. Before Snowden, we knew the government and corporations collected our online data. As consumers we are subject to the new privacy that exchanges free online to the Worldwide Web in exchange for informative data on our Web habits and behavior. We ate the cookie like everyone else. The way library computers work, the ones we own and run, simply weren’t set up to track users. We were so good about it that we played an unwitting role in the events of 9/11. Even now libraries are better places to scheme than any Internet cafe. Especially better than using a contracted cell phone.
In Data and Goliath, Bruce Schneier takes us on a quick tour of post-9/11 and post-Snowden cyberspace and where government, corporations, and users are when it comes to the individual’s privacy.
We’ve created an online world where user privacy is no longer valued. In fact, we are not safe if not spied on, and we don’t get a great user experience unless we’re well-known by the companies with whom we trade and the government which protects, educates, and keeps us healthy.
He makes great points; here are some:
- Actual content of communications is less nosey and insightful than “meta-data.”
- Government cyber-espionage agencies like the NSA do not need illegal data taps on wired and wireless Internet as much as simply the data waste given off by normal Internet and mobile network activity.
- Under ubiquitous surveillance, we can be influenced to buy when we simply act hungry or be charged for crimes that may or may not be construed from a video cam.
- The biggest issue isn’t net neutrality or a corporate Internet but that all of us have drunk the kool-aid that the Web can only work in its present free access in exchange for almost complete omniscience of the military-industrial complex.
Was Ike right? Was the major threat not Marxist-Leninism but Big Brother in the unified and seamless cooperation of Big Government and Big Business?
Schneier’s assessment of the post-Snowden, post-9/11 cyber world is less than sanguine but more than nihlist dystopia. He’s down, as the kids might say, with our own ability to understand the issues. All may want Snowden to answer for the NSA whistle-blowing, but no one agrees and all scratch their heads, at least as citizens, about our self-imprisonment by online data and behavior. There are one too many data links where data should be secure — bank accounts, health records to name a few — for anyone to go unnoticed.
In the United States and other democratic countries we’ve taken for granted the inalienable right to make decisions and behave lawfully in the context of equal human and legal rights. Underneath all of this is the presumption of privacy and rights like the one to not self-incriminate. Almost overnight these values have been compromised in effect to make a communications system work effectively. The trick now is to figure out how data can become a David, how those of us who work for the NSA and Google for free might fashion a slingshot and stone out of ones and zeros.
Oh, yes, as librarians our stance is well-known. Let’s keep it that way.
Annals of Search Diogenes Edition
I’m not finding you. I won’t find you, will I?
You never know where life will take you. You never know what you’ll need to know or will be able to know. Online search holds out hope that more can be known about all this, but, alas, it can’t deliver.
Take the world depicted on CBS’s new CSI franchise, CSI Cyber Crime. I can believe that cyber crime is out there happening just beyond these keyboarding fingers. Yet I can no better assess the truth of the hyper-cyber or the cyber cyber of this new world of criminality. The logic at hand and deployed makes sense, entertains me while vexing me. Is their world my world?
I feel like a hopeless and hapless Diogenes seeking the honest man. In my opinion, honesty, good behavior, altruism, golden rule — all these blend. I sense that most of us feel this way. The definitive way is not through the Web or any other tool. These tools obscure as much as they help. I could use CSI Cyber tools at my finger tips. I could use Patricia Arquette on my speed dial.
Perhaps, software, networking, and all that server-posted content might help me think like the cyber sleuths on CSI. I could think like a machine. Machines help predict, and if you behave predictively, so much the better. Unfortunately, we, all in Diogenes’ footsteps, encounter along the way so much one-off behaviors. The driverless car powered by Google zigs when the driver zags.
Thankfully, a human can intervene and take over controls. The human side of all of this and, for this column, the human in search is where the librarian may thrive. We can be the drone pilot, we can be the adviser who connects the dots that machines do not pick until someone real tells them.
Certainly the annals of search will devote much time to artificial intelligence and smart search. Some suggest it will end with the machine becoming more human than its designers. Likely, smart people will step up and draw a line in the sand where machines can take charge.
The Turing Test to guess whether or not a human is communicating with an out-of-sight machine is simple. A human judge must determine if by questioning alone whether he or she is speaking with a machine or human. Can the machine successfully imitate a person?
Surely, the Diogenes tale of searching the world for an honest man needs revising in the modern world to extend to machines. Diogenes will have to answer — is this a machine or person? What need he ask to find out if he’s found an honest man or honest machine?
Who knows? But it is clear Diogenes would not be able to Google it.