ALIA 2000: Capitalising on Knowledge

- the information professional in the 21st century

24 October 2000

National Convention Centre Canberra

We Are Plato's Children


(c) Jerry Everard 2000

Today, I speak as a non-librarian, and as an observer of national policies and their impacts. I'm going to look at what I see as some of the drivers of national policy in Australia, and why it is that the more things change the more they stay the same. What I hope to do is to throw out a few challenges, a few ideas and see where they might tie-in to the library and broader information community, and highlight some of the challenges that knowledge workers will face in responding to the continuing development of policy.

Policy is a bit like sand. It seeks out the cracks and tries to fill them, put it under pressure and it turns to stone, and it is an essential ingredient in concrete. And there are seeming contradictions in that set of statements. Sand is both fluid and set in concrete. But whatever its form, its placement is neither without reason, nor without impact. Information policy is about people, and community. Above all, it is about cementing people into that community.

Here are some concerns people have expressed over information technology:

_ Information security will be compromised; _ Authorship will be difficult to authenticate; _ People will think they know something, but will lack understanding; _ It's main use will be to catalogue, rather than promote knowledge; _ Education will become shallow - people won't learn, they'll just quote; _ It's good for games and recreation, but not much else; and _ It will destroy relationships because people will stop interacting with each other.

And the person who said this was Plato, in the Phaedrus, ca.410 BC So concerns about information technology and its social implications go back about as far as concrete, which was developed not long before.

And we are still grappling with these issues today, across a range of countries in the Developed world. For others the problem is how to get to be in a position to have those problems. And here we have issues of access and gatekeeping and old fashioned poverty in the Developing world (particularly in Africa, parts of Eastern Europe and Asia), and there are issues of policy and regime security for a range of other countries, such as North Korea and Burma.

The issues, interestingly are not ultimately about technology, but about people. Information relates people to each other through ideas. It builds communities of understanding - groups of us as against groups of them (insiders and outsiders). So information is about both identity and power. And I suspect that that is why information and the technologies of its distribution are such emotive and political issues.

Now, there is a range of national policy issues that have been thrown up by these new technologies, and the policy responses for the most part represent a continuation of paper processes by other means.

Looked at another way, information can be viewed as a relationship. It is a process rather than a commodity. So, when we place a commodity-value on information, we are really talking about a toll for access, not a thing for sale. What we pay for is access to a conversation.   And because we are talking about a relationship, the big issue that requires policy action is mediation. And this finds expression five ways:

(1) How can you ensure privacy in the face of technologies that aggregate information - often without the knowledge or informed consent of the person concerned.

(2) In the rush for free access, how can you ensure that harmful information is not imparted to those who are morally vulnerable;

(3) How can you retain rights over information in the face of a technology that allows you to copy and paste at will - not just text, but sound and moving images;

(4) How can you assure the security of commercial transactions; and

(5) How can information centres ensure continued access for future generations to information stored on perishable media, and technology-specific media - a particular challenge for libraries and archives, whether public or corporate. The fact that these questions, most of which were raised by Plato, are still being asked today, suggests that the questions are more important than the answers.

But if we know what the key questions are, then we at least know where society is going to want to draw some boundaries. And those boundaries will translate into what the government considers deliverables - in the form of standards and regulatory frameworks. These are the tangible impacts of policy on the way we operate as knowledge workers. The policy responses of today are setting the boundaries on how we will do business for at least the next decade and with some tweaking, for some years beyond. I want to turn briefly to some specific impacts of current policy.

And I shall do so, largely in the order Plato specified:   Privacy. As more and more records become aggregated, electronic cross-referencing can lead to issues of how we negotiate boundaries between databases. Some of this is already set in law.

For example in the area of healthcare records. To take another example, a company that had collected marketing information on the basis that it would not be on-sold to other marketing companies went broke. The receivers decided that the marketing database was a saleable asset, but once on-sold there were no further binding restrictions on the use of that information.

As certain kinds of information accrue commercial value, there is a policy imperative to provide certain kinds of protection to ensure that that information is not used for exploitative purposes.  

At the same time, censorship has long been the bane of libraries. The recently enacted Australian Broadcasting Act (Online Services) Amendment Act 1999 is one of the key pieces of legislation to apply censorship to online materials in Australia.

We have had several hundred years to develop policies covering access to print media, but less than a decade to come to grips with material on the web. Amid the debate on whether the web is a broadcast medium or a communications device or a common carrier (or transport network) the policy answer is: 'It depends on how you look at it'. The resulting legislation spent 72 pages on amendments that basically said to the community: "if you complain, and we agree with the complaint, we will ask a site to be removed."

It was a classic piece of non-legislation that enabled the government to say they were protecting those patriotic minors who only look at Australian pornography, while allowing e-commerce to proceed as though nothing had happened. The issue is a little more difficult where access is being provided in public buildings, such as libraries, where there might be some public presumption of ethical access, and appropriate controls over that access. The difficulty here is that filtering software does not live up to public expectations. As a result, many of them filter material that arguably should not be filtered, such as breast cancer information, latin texts, and curriculum vitae of prominent people with the words cum laude among their credentials! It can even extend to email accounts on some Internet Service Providers.

According to online journal Hotwired ( /news /culture /0,1284,38910,00.html?tw=wn20000921), a person named Sherrill Babcock was unable to register her name for email, but was (strangely enough) allowed to register Babpenis and Babdildo instead. And in the meantime, pornographers just use innocuous filenames, or simply relocate offshore. That said, with the actual quantity of online pornography being about the same as the amount of government information online at 1.3% of the searchable net (Lawrence and Giles, 1999), and with the popularity of the word 'sex' as a search term now reduced to a dismal third behind 'travel' and 'MP3' (, perhaps users in this decade of the 'naughties' are beginning to put things in perspective.

Copyright law is playing catch-up with the online world, as the opponents of Napster have found with respect to music files made available for free download. And even the legal status of hyperlinks has yet to be finally established in some jurisdictions.

This will be an area to watch as the policy outcome will have an impact on the very architecture of information. To touch on another of Plato's concerns, in an age where kids' homework can be completed with a point and click, or drag and drop, the question arises over the extent to which we should still be thinking of information in commodity terms. You see, Plato was right. Writing does enable people to copy and pass off information as though it were their own. I'll come back to that one shortly, from two directions: intellectual property rights, and security of transactions.

Plato was also concerned about security of transactions - actually he cast it in terms of authentication of documents, but it amounts to the same thing. For him biometrics was the key, with voice recognition being the unique identifier - but in his day this was limited to face-to-face transactions.

Today we have public key encryption and digital signatures. In Plato's time the equivalent for trusted documents was the seal - once again the authentication authority was separate from the person - we have in a sense come full circle on that one. We have had widespread acceptance of individual signatures for only about 350 years for legal authentication with some contractual signatures going back further. Once again, the signature is only as trusted as the people who use it. Once separated from the individual, then it is only as secure as the holder of the private key, or the holder of the machine with the private key.

The Australian Archives Act has raised important questions over the extent to which information will remain available even for a few decades, let alone ensuring access and reproducibility after fifty years. In an effort to allow for migration across technologies as new formats are developed, the Act has been updated to allow for documents to be considered original, despite minor formatting changes resulting from changes in reader software and hardware over time. To its credit, the updated law has done well in its attempt to express its intentions and application in technology-neutral terms.

This has often been a failing in the past, and one which legislative drafters are beginning to come to grips with, but nowhere quickly enough. But the high cost of keeping up with data migration from format to format as each new one emerges is leading to the loss of historical data as the media degrades faster than its contents can be migrated. Archives must now be kept, not only of the documents, but the software and hardware required to read them. Again, this applies, not merely to written documents, but to film and sound media too, where the problem was perhaps first recognised. The cost of both data migration and maintenance of legacy software and hardware will not be trivial.

In addition, the nature of web-based information is such that the relationship pathways between information may be as important as the specific information contained in any one document. Consequently issues will arise over the boundaries of a work - do you archive the primary page only? What if that were only a page of links to data held elsewhere? A prime example of this is an archive of a Guggenheim Museum electronic exhibition from 1998 - all that has been retained is a page of broken links - every page on the site had moved elsewhere. Like a fossilised impression, the page gave a tantalising list of names and titles but nothing more. These basic issues, coupled with the Government Online initiatives to move as much government business as possible into the online format present us with a formidable task.

Standards are going to remain one of the key issues for policy. This includes encryption standards for public key infrastructure, as well as protocol standards to ensure compatability across different technology platforms, incuding wireless and mobile applications. Again these are not new issues, as evidenced by the existence of the Rosetta Stone (196BC) - just 200 years after Plato and during Greek administration of Egypt. The two languages in three scripts on the stone revealed the difficulties of applying consistent language standards across an empire. Interestingly, just as web pages today specify the language standard to be applied, so too the Rosetta Stone includes as part of the decree it embodies, the stipulation that it is to be set in stone in the three scripts, heiroglyphic, demotic and Greek. What we have in fact is a meta-data standard that specifies the platform (a stela of hard stone), the language versions, the authority of the specification (Ptolemy V), the author (the priests), the font faces, review period (yearly), and its URL -(each of the first, second and third rank temples).

<DOCTYPE="decree"> <platform="stone"; attribute: "hard"> <language="Greek;Egyptian"> <font-face="Greek; Heiroglyphic; Demotic"> <registration authority ="Ptolemy V"> <authority="the priests"> <date="13th year of Ptolemy's reign"> <review period="yearly"> <URL="first, second, third-rank temples">

In fact it has many of the elements of the Dublin Core meta data standard, and provides us with an insight into the nature of information - what basic things are needed to render information both intelligible and authoritative within official discourse. Given Plato's key concerns, is it any surprise that Australian Government Online initiatives with respect to policy and regulation standards issues should include:

* Accessibility * Privacy * Security * Electronic publishing and record keeping, including metadata * Government Public Key Infrastructure * E-Procurement standards

Indeed there is no shortage of policy challenges facing us throughout the next decade. And in that time, more will be published online than in the previous entire history of print publishing, and much of it will be quickly lost for future generations. But the fact remains that the main challenges facing libraries and other knowledge-based organisations will be human ones. The big issue is not technology but culture change. And there are five levels at which this needs to be addressed. Let me characterise them as challenges for management as follows:

* Management buy-in (managers want innovation, but lack the computer literacy to articulate it) * Process (linearity, quality issues, version control, security, distribution/compatability) * Production planning (text, visuals, layout, links - and so on) * Client base (Dealing with two levels of client, one electronically literate, but the other not)

In each case the hurdles are human ones, both inside among the producers and outside, among the customer base. The fifth challenge arises in cases where you adapt the technology in-house. In this case you can encounter disparities with the open-standard commercial releases. And this can mean that technology cannot be readily upgraded with new commercial upgrades, due to in-house patches being incompatible. So the organisation can lack technological flexibility. Change does not happen comfortably, yet it remains unavoidable. In many cases senior management lack computer literacy and this makes it easy for them to think only in paper terms and the old material production cycle they are used to. What we see happening is that the client base has found the internet and the online news services, and will happily use alternative means of sourcing their information. So the research shop or library gets bypassed. To overcome this requires the development of a strong client focus, to ensure that your research shop is adding value to the information that your clients can access elsewhere. But the development of a close relationship with clients can, and arguably should, lead to the development of two levels of information flow, formal and informal. But this produces challenges for management in terms of ensuring that the distinction between formal and informal material is recognised by clients. Notice that none of this is actually technology driven - these are common sense and age-old human business practices (not rocket science). However, the pace of information flow across these two levels can mean that a whole swag of new issues emerges.

* Parallel working means that version control is an issue. * Smart pull becomes an issue for clients unused to searching for material that formerly just arrived as if by magic on their desks in paper format. * New standards are needed for electronic document production in terms of format and meta data - information about the information in the document.

But if information is stored in an indexed way like paper files, then you can wind up having to categorise information in terms of one time, one context. This places barriers restricting the degree to which information can be re-purposed, or adapted to fit a changing context. And this is rapidly becoming unnecessary with plain text search engines and intelligent agents improving very rapidly. I believe data mining will remain a key growth industry for long time to come. And this means a new way of working. All of this throws up a number of issues for any knowledge-based organisation, be it publisher, research group, or library.

* Can your organisation produce documents in a non-linear format, perhaps in modules, perhaps using a range of active and static media? * Can it be produced in a distributed way to take advantage of work rhythms, even night/day production cycles across different countries? * Can the modules be tagged with key terms, rather than having to categorise the whole document on the basis of a single current interpretation of the use of its content? * Does it still require a linear quality assurance cycle? Or to phrase it another way, can quality be assured rather than controlled?

On the user or client side - are they equipped to pull the document electronically from your display area? Or will they insist on print? For the next decade at least, dual format (print/electronic) systems will need to remain in place, and probably will continue for certain purposes for many years to come. But the design decisions will continue to rest on:

* the extent to which you design for paper or for screen, (portrait or landscape),
* how well you design for navigation and disabled access, and * how well you design a hyperlinked document that will also print legibly.

These are all process issues that reflect a way of thinking. And ways of thinking can quickly become challenges for culture change. In the next decade I suspect that an out-of-print title will come closer to being a thing of the past for the major publishers as more and more backlist publications are stored digitally - let's hope the migration strategy is in place before the paper versions become landfill. Whatever shape the knowledge institution takes over the next decade, it seems to me that the challenges will be how we think about two things:

* the management of information in a non-technology-specific way, and
* more importantly, how we get comfortable with thinking about information itself in a non-linear and indeed non-commodity way.

Information is about community and dialogue, rather than about things. That is not to say that knowledge workers won't make a living from their products - it's just that what they produce is not a thing but a relationship. Plato's questions are still relevant today, not because of the answers we produce, but because of what the questions say about the society that is asking them. We are, after all, still Plato's children.


Copyright Jerry Everard
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