I’ve just started reading Tyler Cowen’s new book, Create Your Own Economy. (That is to say, I’ve just finished Chapter 1.) I should preface this by saying that Cowen is one of my great intellectual crushes and his blog, Marginal Revolution, has taught me a lot and strongly influenced my thinking on some matters (as well as introducing me to one of my other great intellectual crushes, Sudhir Venkatesh). And I say all of these complimentary things because I’m going to spend the rest of the post cranky.
Chapter 1, roughly speaking, is about two things: the information explosion in modern society, including the tools that both generate and help us manage it; and the autism spectrum as a frame for helping Cowen understand his own thinking, and all of us better manage that information explosion in our own lives.
Now, I’m fascinated by the autism spectrum. I will download/read anything I come across with Temple Grandin in it, I’m fascinated by the way non-normative minds both illuminate the norm and broaden the meaning of humanity, and reports (particularly self-reports) from that spectrum tend to be the most personally gripping of all dispatches from non-normative terrain. But I can’t stand the way geekdom, a few years back, flocked to the spectrum — or, rather, the metaphor of the spectrum — for self-understanding. There’s a reason the DSM includes differential diagnoses, and therapy, outside (and perhaps neutral) observers. The faddishness of self-diagnosis, the appropriation of the metaphor as an explanation (or perhaps excuse) for oneself without the actual diagnostic process and its consequences, the cherry-picking of personally useful or (dare I say) sexy elements of a descriptive sketch on a web site without taking into account the full picture…right. Drives me crazy. For all that it’s a fascinating spectrum and, even, sometimes, a great metaphor.
And then (page 9!) I hit the word “catalog”.
Librarians have a passionate conversation going on the nature and meaning and management of information overload. Part of this passion surrounds the idea of cataloguing. And one of the key things here is — a lot of librarians get apoplectic about the lack of cataloguing online (in the very services Cowen refers to — Flickr, del.icio.us, iTunes, among others. Cataloguing’s a technical term, a technical idea in librarianship. It involves high (often very exacting) standards for metadata which facilitate precise and comprehensive searches. (Which are, really, often neither as precise nor as comprehensive as some librarians would like to think, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)
Cowen sees a world of technical tools helping us to manage information overload…I see a world of tools which, don’t get me wrong, I spend a ton of time on and am madly in love with, but which create as many problems as they solve in that. I can get freakishly excited about crowdsourcing and folksonomies and what-have-you, but they also have very serious flaws with regard to some of the problems that cataloguing, in the librarianship sense, aims to solve. The tools we have now are very nascent. Our ability to organize information with them is in some ways very limited. (Why does my iPod have three different genres with names like “Electronica/Dance”, except differently punctuated? Did the geeks at the wedding I was just at get around to creating a hashtag for their photo uploads of the event — and if not, how will I find out what happened after I left, and even if so, how many sites is it scattered across, and how many photos will I miss because they missed the message? Why does my task management software not freaking integrate with my calendar?)
The fact that I can even ask these questions is, don’t get me wrong, pretty cool. This sort of participatory, decentralized information culture is going to lead us in all sorts of great directions, even though few to none of them will, I expect, resemble cataloguing (and somewhere in the dusty corners of librarianship, people will be shaking their fists at the sky about this). But Cowen’s view of what is going on in information tools is so very, very different from a lot of the views I encountered in my Information Organization class.
And that’s the other thing that made it hard to read this chapter — hard because some little bat of an idea was beating its wings against the cage of the book, wanting to argue and break and go off some other way. It’s one of the major difficulties I had in 415 in reverse. In 415, I read librarians’ conversations on these themes, and they had so little in common with conversations, on the same topics, that I’ve seen socially, in the worlds of computer geeks and online communities; I kept ranting at the papers I was reading, when they’d say something was obviously impossible but I could point to real-world examples, when they’d make statements with fundamentally different assumptions than those I’m used to seeing and take them as absolute truth. And here, I read Cowen’s piece of the conversation, and it has so little in common with what librarians have to say. “Libraries” appears precisely once in the index (page 43!). A brief scan of the index suggests that none of the philosophies and technical contributions of librarianship make an appearance in this book at all — and Cowen has a tremendously wide-ranging intellect and is a heavy user of his local libraries. Among non-librarians, he seems one of the most likely to really know things about library ideas.
I kept having the feeling in 415 that if librarians and non-librarians are having separate conversations about information tools, culture, philosophy — and if non-librarians are the ones out there generating and using the tools, with or without the theories, in a flawed but fecund creative explosion — then librarians, convening slow committees to generate precise tools — will be obsolete and never even notice. Cowen’s book, thus far, does not bode well for this.
How do we bridge those divided networks? How do we bring some of those conversations, and conversationalists, into a common sphere?