Tag Archives: data

The Social Laboratory

The Social Laboratory.

Animation of security cameras overlaid on Singapore

In October 2002, Peter Ho, the permanent secretary of defense for the tiny island city-state of Singapore, paid a visit to the offices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Defense Department’s R&D outfit best known for developing the M16 rifle, stealth aircraft technology, and the Internet. Ho didn’t want to talk about military hardware. Rather, he had made the daylong plane trip to meet with retired Navy Rear Adm. John Poindexter, one of DARPA’s then-senior program directors and a former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Ho had heard that Poindexter was running a novel experiment to harness enormous amounts of electronic information and analyze it for patterns of suspicious activity — mainly potential terrorist attacks.

The two men met in Poindexter’s small office in Virginia, and on a whiteboard, Poindexter sketched out for Ho the core concepts of his imagined system, which Poindexter called Total Information Awareness (TIA). It would gather up all manner of electronic records — emails, phone logs, Internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports — and then, based on predetermined scenarios of possible terrorist plots, look for the digital “signatures” or footprints that would-be attackers might have left in the data space. The idea was to spot the bad guys in the planning stages and to alert law enforcement and intelligence officials to intervene.

[…]

Ho returned home inspired that Singapore could put a TIA-like system to good use. Four months later he got his chance, when an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) swept through the country, killing 33, dramatically slowing the economy, and shaking the tiny island nation to its core. Using Poindexter’s design, the government soon established the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning program (RAHS, pronounced “roz”) inside a Defense Ministry agency responsible for preventing terrorist attacks and “nonconventional” strikes, such as those using chemical or biological weapons — an effort to see how Singapore could avoid or better manage “future shocks.” Singaporean officials gave speeches and interviews about how they were deploying big data in the service of national defense — a pitch that jibed perfectly with the country’s technophilic culture.

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many current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way.

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They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs — housing, education, security — in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of “order” is all-encompassing.

Ten years after its founding, the RAHS program has evolved beyond anything Poindexter could have imagined. Across Singapore’s national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren — and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.

In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.

In a country run by engineers and technocrats, it’s an article of faith among the governing elite, and seemingly among most of the public, that Singapore’s 3.8 million citizens and permanent residents — a mix of ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays who live crammed into 716 square kilometers along with another 1.5 million nonresident immigrants and foreign workers — are perpetually on a knife’s edge between harmony and chaos.

“Singapore is a small island,” residents are quick to tell visitors, reciting the mantra to explain both their young country’s inherent fragility and its obsessive vigilance. Since Singapore gained independence from its union with Malaysia in 1965, the nation has been fixated on the forces aligned against it, from the military superiority of potentially aggressive and much larger neighbors, to its lack of indigenous energy resources, to the country’s longtime dependence on Malaysia for fresh water. “Singapore shouldn’t exist. It’s an invented country,” one top-ranking government official told me on a recent visit, trying to capture the existential peril that seems to inform so many of the country’s decisions.

But in less than 50 years, Singapore has achieved extraordinary success. Despite the government’s quasi-socialistic cradle-to-grave care, the city-state is enthusiastically pro-business, and a 2012 report ranked it as the world’s wealthiest country, based on GDP per capita. Singapore’s port handles 20 percent of the world’s shipping containers and nearly half of the world’s crude oil shipments; its airport is the principal air-cargo hub for all of Southeast Asia; and thousands of corporations have placed their Asian regional headquarters there. This economic rise might be unprecedented in the modern era, yet the more Singapore has grown, the more Singaporeans fear loss. The colloquial word kiasu, which stems from a vernacular Chinese word that means “fear of losing,” is a shorthand by which natives concisely convey the sense of vulnerability that seems coded into their social DNA (as well as their anxiety about missing out — on the best schools, the best jobs, the best new consumer products). Singaporeans’ boundless ambition is matched only by their extreme aversion to risk.

That is one reason the SARS outbreak flung the door wide open for RAHS. From late February to July of 2003, the virus flamed through the country. It turned out that three women who were hospitalized and treated for pneumonia in Singapore had contracted SARS while traveling in Hong Kong. Although two of the women recovered without infecting anyone, the third patient sparked an outbreak when she passed the virus to 22 people, including a nurse who went on to infect dozens of others. The officials identified a network of three more so-called “superspreaders” — together, five people caused more than half the country’s 238 infections. If Singaporean officials had detected any of these cases sooner, they might have halted the spread of the virus.

Health officials formed a task force two weeks after the virus was first spotted and took extraordinary measures to contain it, but they knew little about how it was spreading. They distributed thermometers to more than 1 million households, along with descriptions of SARS’s symptoms. Officials checked for fevers at schools and businesses, and they even used infrared thermal imagers to scan travelers at the airport. The government invoked Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act and ordered in-home quarantines for more than 850 people who showed signs of infection, enforcing the rule with surveillance devices and electronic monitoring equipment. Investigators tracked down all people with whom the victims had been in contact. The government closed all schools at the pre-university level, affecting 600,000 students.

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The SARS outbreak reminded Singaporeans that their national prosperity could be imperiled in just a few months by a microscopic invader that might wipe out a significant portion of the densely packed island’s population.

Months after the virus abated, Ho and his colleagues ran a simulation using Poindexter’s TIA ideas to see whether they could have detected the outbreak. Ho will not reveal what forms of information he and his colleagues used — by U.S. standards, Singapore’s privacy laws are virtually nonexistent, and it’s possible that the government collected private communications, financial data, public transportation records, and medical information without any court approval or private consent — but Ho claims that the experiment was very encouraging. It showed that if Singapore had previously installed a big-data analysis system, it could have spotted the signs of a potential outbreak two months before the virus hit the country’s shores. Prior to the SARS outbreak, for example, there were reports of strange, unexplained lung infections in China. Threads of information like that, if woven together, could in theory warn analysts of pending crises.

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The system uses a mixture of proprietary and commercial technology and is based on a “cognitive model” designed to mimic the human thought process — a key design feature influenced by Poindexter’s TIA system. RAHS, itself, doesn’t think. It’s a tool that helps human beings sift huge stores of data for clues on just about everything. It is designed to analyze information from practically any source — the input is almost incidental — and to create models that can be used to forecast potential events. Those scenarios can then be shared across the Singaporean government and be picked up by whatever ministry or department might find them useful. Using a repository of information called an ideas database, RAHS and its teams of analysts create “narratives” about how various threats or strategic opportunities might play out. The point is not so much to predict the future as to envision a number of potential futures that can tell the government what to watch and when to dig further.

The officials running RAHS today are tight-lipped about exactly what data they monitor, though they acknowledge that a significant portion of “articles” in their databases come from publicly available information, including news reports, blog posts, Facebook updates, and Twitter messages. (“These articles have been trawled in by robots or uploaded manually” by analysts, says one program document.) But RAHS doesn’t need to rely only on open-source material or even the sorts of intelligence that most governments routinely collect: In Singapore, electronic surveillance of residents and visitors is pervasive and widely accepted.

Surveillance starts in the home, where all Internet traffic in Singapore is filtered, a senior Defense Ministry official told me (commercial and business traffic is not screened, the official said). Traffic is monitored primarily for two sources of prohibited content: porn and racist invective. About 100 websites featuring sexual content are officially blocked. The list is a state secret, but it’s generally believed to include Playboy and Hustler magazine’s websites and others with sexually laden words in the title. (One Singaporean told me it’s easy to find porn — just look for the web addresses without any obviously sexual words in them.) All other sites, including foreign media, social networks, and blogs, are open to Singaporeans. But post a comment or an article that the law deems racially offensive or inflammatory, and the police may come to your door.

Singaporeans have been charged under the Sedition Act for making racist statements online, but officials are quick to point out that they don’t consider this censorship. Hateful speech threatens to tear the nation’s multiethnic social fabric and is therefore a national security threat, they say. After the 2012 arrest of two Chinese teenage boys, who police alleged had made racist comments on Facebook and Twitter about ethnic Malays, a senior police official explained to reporters: “The right to free speech does not extend to making remarks that incite racial and religious friction and conflict. The Internet may be a convenient medium to express one’s views, but members of the public should bear in mind that they are no less accountable for their actions online.”

Singaporean officials stress that citizens are free to criticize the government, and they do.

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Commentary that impugns an individual’s character or motives, however, is off-limits because, like racial invective, it is seen as a threat to the nation’s delicate balance. Journalists, including foreign news organizations, have frequently been charged under the country’s strict libel laws.

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Not only does the government keep a close eye on what its citizens write and say publicly, but it also has the legal authority to monitor all manner of electronic communications, including phone calls, under several domestic security laws aimed at preventing terrorism, prosecuting drug dealing, and blocking the printing of “undesirable” material.

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The surveillance extends to visitors as well. Mobile-phone SIM cards are an easy way for tourists to make cheap calls and are available at nearly any store — as ubiquitous as chewing gum in the United States. (Incidentally, the Singaporean government banned commercial sales of gum because chewers were depositing their used wads on subway doors, among other places.) Criminals like disposable SIM cards because they can be hard to trace to an individual user. But to purchase a card in Singapore, a customer has to provide a passport number, which is linked to the card, meaning the phone company — and, presumably, by extension the government — has a record of every call made on a supposedly disposable, anonymous device.

Privacy International reported that Singaporeans who want to obtain an Internet account must also show identification — in the form of the national ID card that every citizen carries — and Internet service providers “reportedly provide, on a regular basis, information on users to government officials.” The Ministry of Home Affairs also has the authority to compel businesses in Singapore to hand over information about threats against their computer networks in order to defend the country’s computer systems from malicious software and hackers

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Perhaps no form of surveillance is as pervasive in Singapore as its network of security cameras, which police have installed in more than 150 “zones” across the country. Even though they adorn the corners of buildings, are fastened to elevator ceilings, and protrude from the walls of hotels, stores, and apartment lobbies, I had little sense of being surrounded by digital hawk eyes while walking around Singapore, any more than while surfing the web I could detect the digital filters of government speech-minders. Most Singaporeans I met hardly cared that they live in a surveillance bubble and were acutely aware that they’re not unique in some respects. “Don’t you have cameras everywhere in London and New York?” many of the people I talked to asked. (In fact, according to city officials, “London has one of the highest number of CCTV cameras of any city in the world.”) Singaporeans presumed that the cameras deterred criminals and accepted that in a densely populated country, there are simply things you shouldn’t say. “In Singapore, people generally feel that if you’re not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don’t have anything to worry about,” one senior government official told me.

This year, the World Justice Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group that studies adherence to the rule of law, ranked Singapore as the world’s second-safest country. Prized by Singaporeans, this distinction has earned the country a reputation as one of the most stable places to do business in Asia. Interpol is also building a massive new center in Singapore to police cybercrime. It’s only the third major Interpol site outside Lyon, France, and Argentina, and it reflects both the international law enforcement group’s desire to crack down on cybercrime and its confidence that Singapore is the best place in Asia to lead that fight.

But it’s hard to know whether the low crime rates and adherence to the rule of law are more a result of pervasive surveillance or Singaporeans’ unspoken agreement that they mustn’t turn on one another, lest the tiny island come apart at the seams. If it’s the latter, then the Singapore experiment suggests that governments can install cameras on every block in their cities and mine every piece of online data and all that still wouldn’t be enough to dramatically curb crime, prevent terrorism, or halt an epidemic. A national unity of purpose, a sense that we all sink or swim together, has to be instilled in the population. So Singapore is using technology to do that too.

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The provision of affordable, equitable housing is a fundamental promise that the government makes to its citizens, and keeping them happy in their neighborhoods has been deemed essential to national harmony. Eighty percent of Singapore’s citizens live in public housing — fashionable, multiroom apartments in high-rise buildings, some of which would sell for around U.S. $1 million on the open market. The government, which also owns about 80 percent of the city’s land, sells apartments at interest rates below 3 percent and allows buyers to repay their mortgages out of a forced retirement savings account, to which employers also make a contribution. The effect is that nearly all Singaporean citizens own their own home, and it doesn’t take much of a bite out of their income.

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The Singapore Tourism Board used the methodology to examine trends about who will be visiting the country over the next decade. Officials have tried to forecast whether “alternative foods” derived from experiments and laboratories could reduce Singapore’s near-total dependence on food imports.

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Singapore is now undertaking a multiyear initiative to study how people in lower-level service or manufacturing jobs could be replaced by automated systems like computers or robots, or be outsourced. Officials want to understand where the jobs of the future will come from so that they can retrain current workers and adjust education curricula. But turning lower-end jobs into more highly skilled ones — which native Singaporeans can do — is a step toward pushing lower-skilled immigrants out of the country.

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Singaporeans speak, often reverently, of the “social contract” between the people and their government. They have consciously chosen to surrender certain civil liberties and individual freedoms in exchange for fundamental guarantees: security, education, affordable housing, health care.

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One future study that examined “surveillance from below” concluded that the proliferation of smartphones and social media is turning the watched into the watchers. These new technologies “have empowered citizens to intensely scrutinise government elites, corporations and law enforcement officials … increasing their exposure to reputational risks,” the study found. From the angry citizen who takes a photo of a policeman sleeping in his car and posts it to Twitter to an opposition blogger who challenges party orthodoxy, Singapore’s leaders cannot escape the watch of their own citizens.

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In this tiny laboratory of big-data mining, the experiment is yielding an unexpected result: The more time Singaporeans spend online, the more they read, the more they share their thoughts with each other and their government, the more they’ve come to realize that Singapore’s light-touch repression is not entirely normal among developed, democratic countries — and that their government is not infallible. To the extent that Singapore is a model for other countries to follow, it may tell them more about the limits of big data and that not every problem can be predicted.

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform.

Crossing

The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements dotted with street furniture.

Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see?


We can’t see how the street is immersed in a twitching, pulsing cloud of data. This is over and above the well-established electromagnetic radiation, crackles of static, radio waves conveying radio and television broadcasts in digital and analogue forms, police voice traffic. This is a new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street.

Such data emerges from the feet of three friends, grimly jogging past, whose Nike+ shoes track the frequency and duration of every step, comparing against pre-set targets for each individual runner. This is cross-referenced with playlist data emerging from their three iPods. Similar performance data is being captured in the engine control systems of a stationary BMW waiting at a traffic light, beaming information back to the BMW service centre associated with the car’s owner.

The traffic light system itself is capturing and collating data about traffic and pedestrian flow, based on real-time patterns surrounding the light, and conveying the state of congestion in the neighbourhood to the traffic planning authority for that region, which alters the lights’ behaviour accordingly. (That same traffic data is subsequently scraped by an information visualisation system that maps average travel times on to house price data, overlaid onto a collaboratively produced and open map of the city.)

In an adjacent newsagent’s, the stock control system updates as a newspaper is purchased, with data about consumption emerging from the EFTPOS system used to purchase the paper, triggering transactions in the customer’s bank account records.

Data emerges from the seven simultaneous phone conversations (with one call via Skype and six cellular phones) amongst the group of people waiting at the pedestrian crossing nearest the newsagent.

The recent browser histories of the two PCs with internet access in a coffee shop across the road update sporadically with use, indicating both individual patterns of websites accessed and an aggregate pattern of data transfer throughout the day. At the counter of the coffee shop, a loyalty card is being swiped, updating records in their customer database. The flat above the shop is silently broadcasting data about the occupant’s usage of his Sky+ box, DAB radio with internet connection, and Xbox Live console. His laptop noisily plays music, noiselessly accreting data to build a profile of the user’s taste in music at the web-based service Last FM. This track has inaccurate or no metadata, which means it is not registered by Last FM, in turn harming its latent sales prospects.

A police car whistles by, the policewoman in the passenger seat tapping into a feed of patterns of suspicious activity around the back of the newsagent on a proprietary police system accessed via her secured BlackBerry. A kid takes a picture of the police car blurring past with his digital camera, which automatically uses a satellite to stamp the image with location data via the GPS-enabled peripheral plugged into the camera’s hot-shoe connection.

Across the road, a telecoms engineer secures a wireless device to the telephone exchange unit on the pavement, which will intermittently broadcast its state back to base, indicating when repairs might be necessary.

Walking past, an anxious-looking punter abruptly halts as the local Ladbrokes triggers a Bluetooth-based MMS to his phone, having detected him nearby, and offers discounts on a flutter on the 3.30 at Newmarket (the Ladbrokes is constantly receiving updates on runners, riders and bets, linked to a national network aggregating information from local nodes at racecourses and bookies). The potential punter had earlier received a tip on said race from his chosen newspaper’s daily sports bulletin, delivered via his mobile’s newsfeed reader software.

As he wonders whether he could discreetly sidle into the bookies to place the bet he’d promised himself he wouldn’t, the street-lamp above his head fades down as its sensors indicate the level of ambient daylight on the street is now quite sufficient, switching into a mode where the solar panel above collects energy for the evening and delivers any potential excess back into the grid, briefly triggering a message indicating this change of state back to the public-private partnership that runs the lighting services in this borough, in turn commencing a transaction to price up the surplus electricity delivered to the grid.

The same increase in daylight causes a minor adjustment in four of the seven CCTV cameras dotted along the street, as they re-calibrate their exposure levels accordingly, the digital video accruing on the array of remote disk drives at a faraway control centre is rendered slightly differently in response.

In an apartment over the bookies, the occupant switches on her kettle, causing the display on her Wattson device that monitors real-time electricity usage in the flat to jump upwards by a hundred watts, whilst triggering a corresponding jump in the sparklines displaying usage on the Holmes software that tracks that data over time, and which compares her consumption to four of her friend’s houses in the same neighbourhood.

Three kids are playing an online game on their mobile phones, in which the physical street pattern around them is overlaid with renderings of the 19th century city. They scuttle down an alleyway behind a furniture showroom as the virtual presence of another player, actually situated in a town forty miles away and reincarnated as a Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, indicated on their map by an icon of a deerstalker andgently puffing pipe, stalks past the overlaid imagined space. The three play a trio of master criminals, intent on unleashing a poisonous miasma upon the unsuspecting and unreal caricatures generated by the game.

Approaching the furniture showroom’s delivery bay to the rear, the driver of an articulated lorry grinds down through his gears in frustration as he realises the road over the lights narrows to a point through which his cab will not fit, information not made clear by the satnav system propped on his dashboard. The RFID chips embedded into the packaging of the seven armchairs in his trailer register briefly on the showroom’s stock control system, noting the delivery time and identity of the driver. When formally checked in later by the showroom’s assistant with a barcode-scanner, the damage to one of the chairs is noted and sent back to base, automatically triggering the addition of a replacement armchair to the next lorry out to this town, while recalculating stock levels.

In the shoe-shop next door, a similar hand-held scanner, unknowingly damaged in a minor act of tomfoolery a day earlier, fails to register the barcode on a box of sneakers, resulting in a lost sale as the assistant is unable to process the transaction without said barcode. The would-be customer walks out in disgust, texting his wife in order to vent his furious frustration on someone. She sends a placating if deliberately patronising message back within a few seconds, which causes him to smile and respond with an ‘x’ two seconds after that. In doing so, his allocation of SMSs for the month tips over to the next tier in his payment plan, triggering a flag in an database somewhere in Slough.

Deciding to spend his money – that he unwittingly has less of than he did a few moments ago – on a book instead, he steps into the only local bookstore on the street, using the now more expensive data plan of his mobile phone service to retrieve aggregated reviews for the latest Andy McNab, which he half-reads whilst perusing the back cover of the book. Unfortunately the corresponding prices offered up by the review system are in US dollars, as the service is not localised and thus he can’t compare prices. This is fortunate for the shop, however, and so during the resulting purchase of the book, the store’s stock control system automatically orders a fresh batch of the now best-seller whilst the on-counter top 10 displays McNab’s seemingly inexorable rise up the charts on a battered old LCD monitor.

Round the corner, the number of copies of the McNab book in the municipal library remains exactly the same. Instead, the large external LED display hoisted over the door at huge expense conveys the volume of ISBNs of books being swiped by librarians inside the building, in real-time. Part of an installation by students at the local art college, the most popular genres of books taken out, inferred from the aggregate of ISBNs and cross-referenced with Amazon, are displayed every five minutes via a collage of randomly-selected movie clips from YouTube that match broadly that same genre and keywords (filtered for decency and sensitivity by bespoke software which is itself receiving updates, detailing what is considered obscene at this point). Currently, a 2-second sequence of a close-up of David Niven’s nose and moustache from The Bridge Over The River Kwai morphs into the bulging right arm of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, cradling a stolen Soviet rocket launcher. The patterns of clip consumption at YouTube twitch accordingly.

Looking up at the display in fascination and bewilderment, an elderly lady stumbles over a pothole in the pavement. Helped back to her feet by a younger man, she decides to complain to the council about the pothole. The man suggests he can do that right now, from his iPod Touch and using the library’s open public wifi, by registering the presence of a pothole at this point on the local problems database, Fix My Street. The old woman stares at him quizzically as it takes him fifty seconds to close the website he had been looking it on his mobile (Google Maps directions for “hairdressers near SW4”, a phrase he’ll shortly have to type in again, having neglected to bookmark it) and access fixmystreet.com. He spends the next few minutes indicating the presence of a pothole outside the library on Fix My Street (unaware of the postcode, he has to select one from a few possible matches on street name), before he moves on, satisfied with his civic good deed for the day. The elderly lady had long since shuffled off, muttering to herself. Although Fix My Street smartly forwards on all issues to the corresponding council, a beleaguered under-trained temp in the also underfunded ‘pavements team’ is unaware of fixmystreet.com and unable to cope with the levels of complaint, and so the pothole claims five more victims over the next two weeks until someone rings up about it.

The LED display board can also sniff what is being accessed via the library’s public wifi network, and displays fragments of the corresponding text and imagery. It switches briefly over to this mode, in order to denote that Fix My Street was being accessed, and displays some details of the transactions detailing the pothole issue. Before flicking back to the YouTube x ISBN installation, the display then conveys some information from the local council about a forthcoming street upgrade, blissfully unaware of the possible connection to be made between that and the pothole. Unfortunately, at that point, the pale sunlight hits the screen at such an angle that it cannot be read by two hurrying passers-by anyway. The display then dissolves into a slow pan across Keira Knightly’s delicately arched eyebrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the swinging briefcase of one of the passers-by, an Amazon Kindle e-book reader briefly connects to the public library – having previously visited the library, the owner had registered the public wifi in her settings. It commences a rapid-fire series of handshakes with Amazon’s systems, swapping personal details back and forth with user profile information, and thus beginning to download a new book by Ian McEwan to the device. Despite the wealth of metadata in this rich stream of data, the Kindle’s closed system means that the library’s databases, and LED display installation, cannot possibly be made aware of this literary transaction being conducted using its infrastructure. Either way, with seven seconds the Kindle user is out of range and the download automatically fizzles out, settling back to wait for the scent of open wireless.

Behind the library, a small 19th century cottage that’s been on the market for a year now is being re-valued by estate agents. This new figure, a few thousand pounds less than the previous, is entered automatically via the estate agent’s PDA and ripples through their internal databases and then external facing systems. It doesn’t trigger any change in three other proprietary databases listing average house prices in the neighbourhood until three weeks later. This house price change subtly affects the average for the area, which is later recombined into the aforementioned map that compares with commuter times for the borough.

An employee of the local water company knocks on a door up the street, calling in order to take a reading from the house’s meter. She uses a bespoke application on her mobile phone, which should indicate the location of the meter on the property. In this case, it doesn’t, so she has to ask.

Five TomTom satnav systems in five of the twelve cars on the street suddenly crash for reasons unknown, causing an instantaneous reboot and login sequence over the course of twenty seconds. One driver notices.

The four other drivers are slightly distracted by the glow of a giant TV screen, installed and operated by the council but paid for through corporate sponsorship, which glowers over the end of a pedestrianised-shopping mall at the end of the street over the lights. It’s broadcasting the Australian Open tennis, which is being played live in Melbourne. A homeless person is sleeping underneath the screen, soaking up some of its transmitted warmth. An on-street information kiosk stands beside the screen, offering a scrollable map of the local area and directory of local businesses. It’s little-used, as the directory of businesses was always incomplete and intermittently updated, its data now rusty and eroded by time. Plus maps are available on most people’s mobile phones. Still, the printer installed in its base occasionally emits a money-off coupon for some of the local businesses.

Under the pavement on one side of the street, a buried sensor records the fact that some fibre-optic cables are now transmitting data with 10% less effectiveness than when they were installed. A rat ascends from an accidentally uncovered grille under the library’s down-pipe nearby, its whiskers containing trace elements of plastic cladding.

A blogger posts an entry on her weblog regarding some new graffiti on the library’s rear, uploading the image via her mobile phone, thanks to her blog platform’s relationship with Flickr, a popular photo sharing site. She adds a cursory description of the stencilled representation of the Mayor’s face superimposed onto a £50 note instead of the Queen’s. Shortly afterwards, she receives an SMS from the service Twitter, indicating that two of her friends are heading for a café up the street, and she decides to intercept them to discuss her find, sending back the URL of her post and the time of her imminent arrival. Her phone’s Google Maps application triangulates her position to within a few hundred metres using the mobile cell that encompasses the street, conveying a quicker route to the café. Unfortunately, none of their systems convey that the café is newly closed for redecoration.

Working from home in his small house backing onto the old cottage, a lawyer files his case notes via the password-protected intranet his company operates, his wifi network encrypted to prevent leakage of such confidential data. He then closes his network connection, switching instead to his neighbour’s wifi network – which has been left purposefully open in the interests of creating a cohesive civic layer of wireless coverage on their street – in order to watch the watch the highlights of his football team’s two-nil victory the night before. In this way, his own remarkably cheap wireless network data plan never goes beyond its monthly cap. This parasitic wireless activity is only curtailed months later, when the previously benevolent neighbour uses some free sniffer software she downloaded to detect the presence of the wifi router that’s responsible for the majority of the data usage in the street.

A local off-license has an old monitor in the window that cycles through a series of crude screen-grabs of faces of shoplifters of local stores, derived from the various CCTV systems owned by a local association of shopkeepers. Unfortunately, the face of the purchaser of the Andy McNab book is mistakenly added to the system three weeks later.

(Coincidentally, in a meeting being conducted several miles away, a project team working on council tax systems briefly considers whether a system of localised screens displaying which houses in the street had not paid their council tax yet, updated wirelessly, would be ethically sound.)

Waiting at the lights, someone pays their council tax by mobile phone, triggering an internet-based bank transfer via SMS. Across the road, a car belong to a city-wide car-sharing network patiently waits to be activated by a swipe of a member’s RFID card. It transmits its location and status back to the car-sharing network’s database every few minutes.

Also in a prime position by the lights, a café is briefly office to two businesspeople having an informal meeting. Although the café’s wireless network is closed, their usage charges are paid for by the company they work for, and they barely notice the cost. The company credit card details are retrieved automatically over a secure transaction. Though it has poorer muffins, the café opens 90 minutes earlier than the library.

A series of small high-resolution displays, hanging under each traffic light and angled towards stationary drivers, alternately communicates the number of accidents that have occurred around these lights in the last year, and then the current speed limit, which can be calibrated to an optimum level for the current traffic conditions in the borough. The traffic lights also house the city’s congestion charging system’s cameras, logging the number-plates of cars passing through its network of inner-city streets.

A wireless sensor network, carefully and discreetly embedded in the trunks of trees lining one side of the street, silently monitors the overall health of the limes and planes, collating data and waiting patiently for the council’s tree surgeon to inspect the arboreal vital signs.

At the end of the line of trees, a new bench has been installed on the street. At either side of the bench, there are two standard electrical power-points freely available for citizens to recharge their phone or laptop. A small LED winks to indicate this, alongside a standardised explanatory icon drawn up by the department also responsible for the highways’ signage systems. The power running to the bench is carried via flexible cables that can twist and stretch around the growing roots of the nearest trees. The bench also carries a WIMAX transmitter as part of a research project led by the local university. As such, this bench appears as a key node on several GIS.

A cab drives through the traffic lights as they switch to green and it quickly signals to turn left, looking to nose back on itself as the presence of a fare is indicated at a nearby hairdressers, via the in-taxi control system. A faraway voice crackles over the intercom a few seconds later attempting to verify that the driver is en-route. The driver clarifies she is en-route but that she’ll take a few minutes more than usual as her satnav system indicates high traffic levels across the three normal routes taken.

At another building on the street, a new four-storey commercial office block inhabited by five different companies, the building information modelling systems, left running after construction, convey real-time performance data on the building’s heating, plumbing, lighting and electrical systems back to the facilities management database operated by the company responsible for running and servicing the building. It also triggers entries in the database of both the architect and engineering firms who designed and built the office block, and are running post-occupancy evaluations on the building in order to learn from its performance once inhabited.

In turn, and using this feed, the city council’s monitoring systems note the aggregated energy usage for the commercial buildings on the street, constantly shuffling its league table of energy-efficient neighbourhoods. The current score for the street, neighbourhood and city is displayed outside the nearby library, on a trio of vertical axis wind turbines with LEDs embedded in their blades.

A prototype of a similar monitoring system, but embedded in the bus-stop opposite the library, records the performance of the lights, travel information displays, large plasma-screen advertising display, and the chilled-beam cooling system newly installed for comfort. The travel information displays themselves receive updates in real-time via a slice of radio spectrum allocated to such data, indicating the proximity of the next five buses. This same system also conveys the latest information on the whereabouts of the no. 73 in particular, in the form of an SMS to a prospective passenger who has selected this as her ‘favourite bus’ via the transport company’s website. Around the corner, she breaks into a trot accordingly.

The plasma display is currently running an advert for the local radio station’s breakfast show (displaying a live stream of SMS messages sent to the show, filtered for obscenity and likelihood of libel). As the slightly out-of-breath imminent passenger arrives within range of its Bluetooth-based transceiver, it cross-fades to a display from the city’s premiere modern art gallery, with whom she has registered her mobile phone as a preferred mode of communication and whose systems are quickly cross-referenced for her attendance record for the last few years, and thus it informs her of a new exhibition about to start.

This she doesn’t notice at all, but one person in the loosely-defined queue around the bus stop does, and scribbles the details on his hand. Four seconds later, the display recognises another mobile phone with an open Bluetooth connection and an active account within the agglomeration of companies that have registered their databases with this advertising service, and shifts its display accordingly. The call-and-response between the queue and the screen continues until the bus finally pulls in and the screen’s transient audience dissipates. It settles back to a carousel of generic advertising messages and local information tailored to that street and its surrounds.

As the bus departs, the new passengers on-board swipe their RFID-based integrated transport system ID cards, updating mass transit databases with every possible aspect that can be gleaned from this simple activity (time of day, location, frequency of use, favourite entry points etc.) The now-empty seat in the bus-stop registers that it is indeed now empty using simple sensors, and wirelessly logs this fact with a database monitoring the usage and state of street furniture in the neighbourhood. Powered by solar panels on top of the bus-stop, it creates a pulsing ambient glow.

Across the road, another billboard displays the number of reported burglaries and bag-snatches in the neighbourhood in the last three months, live data direct from the police force systems. This causes several passers-by to feel a touch more anxious than they did a moment ago. Had they walked past a moment before, the billboard would have been displaying information on a forthcoming community sports day at the local park. One of the passers-by would have recognised their son in the video of last year’s winners, running in slow motion under the crisp typography. A moment before and the passers-by would have been subjected to a tortuous promo for a Portuguese avant-garde play currently running at the local theatre, within which a QR code displayed in the top-right hand corner could’ve been read with a mobile phone’s IR reader, delivering the website for the theatre to the phone’s browser.

Of the two bars, two pubs and three cafés on the street, only one has recently checked that the location and description data overlaid on Google Maps is present and correct, and thus is fortunate to receive the custom of two hungry Hungarian tourists for a full English breakfast with all the trimmings.

Twenty metres below the ground, a tube train scurries under the crossroads, outrunning its halo of data that details its location and speed from the engine control systems, while CCTV conveys images of the carriage directly underneath. The carriage contains forty-four mobile phones seeking a signal, some with Bluetooth headphone sets; ten BlackBerries and four other PDAs likewise; thirteen mp3 players of varying brands, a couple also with Bluetooth headphones; seven sleeping laptops.

Directly overhead, ten thousand metres up, the distant roar of a commercial airliner’s Rolls-Royce engines, beaming their performance data back to engineers via satellite in real-time …

And press play …

[…]

The snapshot above, without the explanatory narrative of the systems being touched by these activities, would just like a freeze-frame of a few people and vehicles set against a backdrop of buildings. A photograph or drawing would show only a handful of people, a few vehicles and some buildings.

[…]

Forty years ago, the British architects Archigram suggested that “When it’s raining on Oxford Street, the buildings are no more important than the rain”. The group’s David Greene subsequently asked “So why draw the buildings and not the rain?”. Why indeed? The sketch above tries to describe data rather than rain, but they’re similarly ephemeral.

Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer

Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer.

Melvil Dewey was a one-man Silicon Valley born a century before Steve Jobs. He was the quintessential Industrial Age entrepreneur, but unlike the Carnegies and Rockefellers, with their industries of heavy materiality and heavy labor, Dewey sold ideas. His ambition revealed itself early: in 1876, shortly after graduating from Amherst College, he copyrighted his library classification scheme. That same year, he helped found the American Library Association, served as founding editor of Library Journal, and launched the American Metric Bureau, which campaigned for adoption of the metric system. He was 24 years old. He had already established the Library Bureau, a company that sold (and helped standardize) library supplies, furniture, media display and storage devices, and equipment for managing the circulation of collection materials. Its catalog (which would later include another Dewey invention, the hanging vertical file) represented the library as a “machine” of uplift and enlightenment that enabled proto-Taylorist approaches to public education and the provision of social services. As chief librarian at Columbia College, Dewey established the first library school — called, notably, the School of Library Economy — whose first class was 85% female; then he brought the school to Albany, where he directed the New York State Library. In his spare time, he founded the Lake Placid Club and helped win the bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics.

Dewey was thus simultaneously in the furniture business, the office-supply business, the consulting business, the publishing business, the education business, the human resources business, and what we might today call the “knowledge solutions” business. Not only did he recognize the potential for monetizing and cross-promoting his work across these fields; he also saw that each field would be the better for it. His career (which was not without its significant controversies) embodied a belief that classification systems and labeling standards and furniture designs and people work best when they work towards the same end — in other words, that intellectual and material systems and labor practices are mutually constructed and mutually reinforcing.

Today’s libraries, Apple-era versions of the Dewey/Carnegie institution, continue to materialize, at multiple scales, their underlying bureaucratic and epistemic structures — from the design of their web interfaces to the architecture of their buildings to the networking of their technical infrastructures. This has been true of knowledge institutions throughout history, and it will be true of our future institutions, too. I propose that thinking about the library as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures — in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures — can help us better identify what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what we can reasonably expect of them. What ideas, values and social responsibilities can we scaffold within the library’s material systems — its walls and wires, shelves and servers?

Library as Platform

For millennia libraries have acquired resources, organized them, preserved them and made them accessible (or not) to patrons. But the forms of those resources have changed — from scrolls and codices; to LPs and LaserDiscs; to e-books, electronic databases and open data sets. Libraries have had at least to comprehend, if not become a key node within, evolving systems of media production and distribution. Consider the medieval scriptoria where manuscripts were produced; the evolution of the publishing industry and book trade after Gutenberg; the rise of information technology and its webs of wires, protocols and regulations. [1] At every stage, the contexts — spatial, political, economic, cultural — in which libraries function have shifted; so they are continuously reinventing themselves and the means by which they provide those vital information services.

Libraries have also assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, [2] and the early Carnegie buildings of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks. [3] As the Carnegie funding program expanded internationally — to more than 2,500 libraries worldwide — secretary James Bertram standardized the design in his 1911 pamphlet “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings,” which offered grantees a choice of six models, believed to be the work of architect Edward Tilton. Notably, they all included a lecture room.

In short, the library has always been a place where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally) supports that program.

Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new applications, technologies and processes. In an influential 2012 article in Library Journal, David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the development of knowledge and community. [4] Weinberger argued that libraries should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and services on top of that foundation. The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy, rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.

Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions.” Further, its association with new media tends to bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even non-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.

Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town.” It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a “cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine what happens on the stage, and that allow it to function as a stage. Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures” that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

It can be instructive for our libraries publics’ — and critical for our libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand how our libraries function as, and as part of, infrastructural ecologies — as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and cultural values that we want to define our communities.

Library as Social Infrastructure
Public libraries are often seen as “opportunity institutions,” opening doors to, and for, the disenfranchised. [6] People turn to libraries to access the internet, take a GED class, get help with a resumé or job search, and seek referrals to other community resources. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future highlighted the benefits to immigrants, seniors, individuals searching for work, public school students and aspiring entrepreneurs: “No other institution, public or private, does a better job of reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy, have failed to reach their potential in the city’s public school system or who simply need help navigating an increasingly complex world.” [7]

[…]

Partly because of their skill in reaching populations that others miss, libraries have recently reported record circulation and visitation, despite severe budget cuts, decreased hours and the threatened closure or sale of “underperforming” branches.

[…]

Libraries also bring communities together in times of calamity or disaster. Toyo Ito, architect of the acclaimed Sendai Mediatheque, recalled that after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, local officials reopened the library quickly even though it had sustained minor damage, “because it functions as a kind of cultural refuge in the city.” He continued, “Most people who use the building are not going there just to read a book or watch a film; many of them probably do not have any definite purpose at all. They go just to be part of the community in the building.” [10]

We need to attend more closely to such “social infrastructures,” the “facilities and conditions that allow connection between people,” says sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In a recent interview, he argued that urban resilience can be measured not only by the condition of transit systems and basic utilities and communication networks, but also by the condition of parks, libraries and community organizations: “open, accessible, and welcoming public places where residents can congregate and provide social support during times of need but also every day.” [11] In his book Heat Wave, Klinenberg noted that a vital public culture in Chicago neighborhoods drew people out of sweltering apartments during the 1995 heat wave, and into cooler public spaces, thus saving lives.

The need for physical spaces that promote a vibrant social infrastructure presents many design opportunities, and some libraries are devising innovative solutions. Brooklyn and other cultural institutions have partnered with the Uni, a modular, portable library that I wrote about earlier in this journal. And modular solutions — kits of parts — are under consideration in a design study sponsored by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York, which aims to reimagine New York City’s library branches so that they can more efficiently and effectively serve their communities. CUF also plans to publish, at the end of June, an audit of, and a proposal for, New York’s three library systems. [12] New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, reflecting on the roles played by New York libraries during recent hurricanes, goes so far as to suggest that the city’s branch libraries, which have “become our de facto community centers,” “could be designed in the future with electrical systems out of harm’s way and set up with backup generators and solar panels, even kitchens and wireless mesh networks.”

[…]

I’ve recently returned from Seattle, where I revisited OMA’s Central Library on its 10th anniversary and toured several new branch libraries. [15] Under the 1998 bond measure “Libraries for All,” citizens voted to tax themselves to support construction of the Central Library and four new branches, and to upgrade every branch in the system. The vibrant, sweeping Ballard branch (2005), by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, includes a separate entrance for the Ballard Neighborhood Service Center, a “little city hall“ where residents can find information about public services, get pet licenses, pay utility bills, and apply for passports and city jobs. While the librarians undoubtedly field questions about such services, they’re also able to refer patrons next door, where city employees are better equipped to meet their needs — thus affording the library staff more time to answer reference questions and host writing groups and children’s story hours.

[…]

These entrepreneurial models reflect what seems to be an increasingly widespread sentiment: that while libraries continue to serve a vital role as “opportunity institutions” for the disenfranchised, this cannot be their primary self-justification. They cannot duplicate the responsibilities of our community centers and social service agencies. “Their narrative” — or what I’d call an “epistemic framing,” by which I mean the way the library packages its program as a knowledge institution, and the infrastructures that support it — “must include everyone,” says the University of Michigan’s Kristin Fontichiaro. [19] What programs and services are consistent with an institution dedicated to lifelong learning? Should libraries be reconceived as hubs for civic engagement, where communities can discuss local issues, create media, and archive community history? [20] Should they incorporate media production studios, maker-spaces and hacker labs, repositioning themselves in an evolving ecology of information and educational infrastructures?

These new social functions — which may require new physical infrastructures to support them — broaden the library’s narrative to include everyone, not only the “have-nots.” This is not to say that the library should abandon the needy and focus on an elite patron group; rather, the library should incorporate the “enfranchised” as a key public, both so that the institution can reinforce its mission as a social infrastructure for an inclusive public, and so that privileged, educated users can bring their knowledge and talents to the library and offer them up as social-infrastructural resources.

Many among this well-resourced population — those who have jobs and home internet access and can navigate the government bureaucracy with relative ease — already see themselves as part of the library’s public. They regard the library as a space of openness, egalitarianism and freedom (in multiple senses of the term), within a proprietary, commercial, segregated and surveilled landscape. They understand that no matter how well-connected they are, they actually don’t have the world at their fingertips — that “material protected by stringent copyright and held in proprietary databases is often inaccessible outside libraries” and that, “as digital rights management becomes ever more complicated, we … rely even more on our libraries to help us navigate an increasingly fractured and litigious digital terrain.” [21] And they recognize that they cannot depend on Google to organize the world’s information. As the librarian noted in that discussion on Metafilter:

The [American Library Association] has a proven history of commitment to intellectual freedom. The public service that we’ve been replaced with has a spotty history of “not being evil.” When we’re gone, you middle class, you wealthy, you tech-savvy, who will fight for that with no profit motivation? Even if you never step foot in our doors, and all of your media comes to a brightly lit screen, we’re still working for you.

The library’s social infrastructure thus benefits even those who don’t have an immediate need for its space or its services.

Finally, we must acknowledge the library’s role as a civic landmark — a symbol of what a community values highly enough to place on a prominent site, to materialize in dignified architecture that communicates its openness to everyone, and to support with sufficient public funding despite the fact that it’ll never make a profit. A well-designed library — a contextually-designed library — can reflect a community’s character back to itself, clarifying who it is, in all its multiplicity, and what it stands for. [22] David Adjaye’s Bellevue and Francis Gregory branch libraries, in historically underserved neighborhoods of Washington D.C., have been lauded for performing precisely this function. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes:

Adjaye is so attuned to the nuances of urban context that one might be hard pressed to identify them as the work of one designer. Francis Gregory is steel and glass, Bellevue is concrete and wood. Francis Gregory presents a single monolithic volume, Bellevue an irregular accretion of concrete pavilions. Context drives the aesthetic.

His designs “make of this humble municipal building an arena for social interaction, …a distinctive civic icon that helps build a sense of common identity.” This kind of social infrastructure serves a vital need for an entire community.

Library as Technological-Intellectual Infrastructure
Of course, we must not forget the library collection itself. The old-fashioned bookstack was at the center of the recent debate over the proposed renovation of the New York Public Library’s Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, which was cancelled last month after more than a year of lawsuits and protests. This storage infrastructure, and the delivery system it accommodates, have tremendous significance even in a digital age. For scholars, the stacks represent near-instant access to any materials within the extensive collection. Architectural historians defended the historical significance of the stacks, and engineers argued that they are critical to the structural integrity of the building.

The way a library’s collection is stored and made accessible shapes the intellectual infrastructure of the institution. The Seattle Public Library uses translucent acrylic bookcases made by Spacesaver — and even here this seemingly mundane, utilitarian consideration cultivates a character, an ambience, that reflects the library’s identity and its intellectual values. It might sound corny, but the luminescent glow permeating the stacks acts as a beacon, a welcoming gesture. There are still many contemporary libraries that privilege — perhaps even fetishize — the book and the bookstack: take MVRDV’s Book Mountain (2012), for a town in the Netherlands; or TAX arquitectura’s Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos (2006) in Mexico City.

Stacks occupy a different, though also fetishized, space in Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library (2011) at the University of Chicago, which mixes diverse infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and a subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by robot. (It’s worth noting that Boston and other libraries contained book railways and conveyer belt retrieval systems — proto-robots — a century ago.) Snøhetta’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library (2013) at North Carolina State University also incorporates a robotic storage and retrieval system, so that the library can store more books on site, as well as meet its goal of providing seating for 20 percent of the student population. [23] Here the patrons come before the collection.

Back in the early aughts, when I spent a summer touring libraries, the institutions on the leading edge were integrating media production facilities, recognizing that media “consumption” and “creation” lie on a gradient of knowledge production. Today there’s a lot of talk about — and action around — integrating hacker labs and maker-spaces. [24] As Anne Balsamo explains, these sites offer opportunities — embodied, often inter-generational learning experiences that are integral to the development of a “technological imagination” — that are rarely offered in formal learning institutions. [25]

The Hunt Library has a maker-space, a GameLab, various other production labs and studios, an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly, an Apple Technology Showcase (named after library donors whose surname is Apple, with an intentional pun on the electronics company). [26] One might think major funding is needed for those kinds of programs, but the trend actually began in 2011 in tiny Fayetteville, New York (pop. 4,373), thought to be the first public library to have incorporated a maker-space. The following year, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh — which for years has hosted film competitions, gaming tournaments, and media-making projects for youth — launched, with Google and Heinz Foundation support, The Labs: weekly workshops at three locations where teenagers can access equipment, software and mentors. Around the same time, Chattanooga — a city blessed with a super-high-speed municipal fiber network — opened its lauded 4th Floor, a 12,000-square foot “public laboratory and educational facility” that “supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” Those tools include 3D printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters, and the instruction includes everything from tech classes, to incubator projects for female tech entrepreneurs, to business pitch competitions.

Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library, just a couple blocks from where I live, opened its Levy Info Commons, which includes space for laptop users and lots of desktop machines featuring creative software suites; seven reserveable teleconference-ready meeting rooms, including one that doubles as a recording studio; and a training lab, which offers an array of digital media workshops led by a local arts and design organization and also invites patrons to lead their own courses. A typical month on their robust event calendar includes resume editing workshops, a Creative Business Tech prototyping workshop, individual meetings with business counselors, Teen Tech tutorials, computer classes for seniors, workshops on podcasting and oral history and “adaptive gaming” for people with disabilities, and even an audio-recording and editing workshop targeted to poets, to help them disseminate their work in new formats. Also last year, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., opened its Digital Commons, where patrons can use a print-on-demand bookmaking machine, a 3D printer, and a co-working space known as the “Dream Lab,” or try out a variety of e-book readers. The Chicago Public Library partnered with the Museum of Science and Industry to open a pop-up maker lab featuring open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three.

Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of Alexandria’s “think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” — make for ideal co-working or incubator spaces, where patrons with diverse skill sets can organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people. [27] Others recommend that librarians entrepreneurialize themselves, rebranding themselves as professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of “aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept practitioners of data mining. [28] Others recommend that libraries get into the content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop their own free, open-source technologies? Not many libraries have the time and resources to undertake such endeavors, but NYPL Labs and Harvard’s Library Test Kitchen, have demonstrated what’s possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory registers, modes of working, postures and more. Librarians and designers are now acknowledging — and designing for, rather than designing out — activities that make noise and can occasionally be a bit messy. I did a study several years ago on the evolution of library sounds and found widespread recognition that knowledge-making doesn’t readily happen when “shhh!” is the prevailing rule.

These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”: are tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? What knowledge is produced when I churn out, say, a keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects — and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library — glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody. Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property rights and free markets [30] — and what better way to express yourself than by 3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy? While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I trust — I hope — that they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” — and the potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Dewey was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can be a dangerous falsehood.

Library staff might want to take up the critique of “innovation,” too. Each new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader launch brings new opportunities for the library to innovate in response. And while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that pursuit in a larger cultural, political-economic and institutional context. Striving to stay technologically relevant can backfire when it means merely responding to the profit-driven innovations of commercial media; we see these mistakes — innovation for innovation’s sake — in the ed-tech arena quite often.

[…]

As Zadie Smith argued beautifully in the New York Review of Books, we risk losing the library’s role as a “different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.” [31] Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, offered an equally eloquent plea for the library as a space of exception:

Libraries are not, or at least should not be, engines of productivity. If anything, they should slow people down and seduce them with the unexpected, the irrelevant, the odd and the unexplainable. Productivity is a destructive way to justify the individual’s value in a system that is naturally communal, not an individualistic or entrepreneurial zero-sum game to be won by the most industrious. [32]

Libraries, she argued, “will always be at a disadvantage” to Google and Amazon because they value privacy; they refuse to exploit users’ private data to improve the search experience. Yet libraries’ failure to compete in efficiency is what affords them the opportunity to offer a “different kind of social reality.” I’d venture that there is room for entrepreneurial learning in the library, but there also has to be room for that alternate reality where knowledge needn’t have monetary value, where learning isn’t driven by a profit motive. We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship and spaces of exception, provided the institution has a strong epistemic framing that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how to read itself as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.

It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library featuring 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a proprietary platformed world.

In libraries like BiblioTech — and the Digital Public Library of America — the collection itself is off-site. Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access them? Do they consider what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to “digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor that supports them — further off-site, behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those structures structure our intellect and sociality?

We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support our shared intellectual and ethical goals.

 

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings.

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web.

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Otlet tried to assemble a great catalog of the world’s published information, create an encyclopedic atlas of human knowledge, build a network of federated museums and other cultural institutions, and establish a World City that would serve as the headquarters for a new world government. For Otlet these were not disconnected activities but part of a larger vision of worldwide harmony. In his later years he started to describe the Mundaneum in transcendental terms, envisioning his global knowledge network as something akin to a universal consciousness and as a gateway to collective enlightenment.

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What the Nazis saw as a “pile of rubbish,” Otlet saw as the foundation for a global network that, one day, would make knowledge freely available to people all over the world. In 1934, he described his vision for a system of networked computers — “electric telescopes,” he called them — that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files. He imagined that individuals would have desktop workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen and multiple movable surfaces — connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources on whatever topics might interest them. As the network spread, it would unite individuals and institutions of all stripes — from local bookstores and classrooms to universities and governments. The system would also feature so-called selection machines capable of pinpointing a particular passage or individual fact in a document stored on microfilm, retrieved via a mechanical indexing and retrieval tool. He dubbed the whole thing a réseau mondial: a “worldwide network” or, as the scholar Charles van den Heuvel puts it, an “analog World Wide Web.”

Twenty-five years before the first microchip, forty years before the first personal computer, and fifty years before the first Web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today’s Internet.

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Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.

Otlet’s prescience, Wright notes, didn’t end there — he also envisioned speech recognition tools, wireless networks that would enable people to upload files to remote servers, social networks and virtual communities around individual pieces of media that would allow people to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus,” and even concepts we are yet to crack with our present technology, such as transmitting sensory experiences like smell and taste.

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By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers. But in his writing he looked far ahead to a future in which networks circled the globe and data could travel freely. Moreover, he imagined a wide range of expression taking shape across the network: distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, social networks, and other forms of knowledge that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.

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The contemporary construct of “the user” that underlies so much software design figures nowhere in Otlet’s work. He saw the mission of the Mundaneum as benefiting humanity as a whole, rather than serving the whims of individuals. While he imagined personalized workstations (those Mondotheques), he never envisioned the network along the lines of a client-server “architecture” (a term that would not come into being for another two decades). Instead, each machine would act as a kind of “dumb” terminal, fetching and displaying material stored in a central location.

The counterculture programmers who paved the way for the Web believed they were participating in a process of personal liberation. Otlet saw it as a collective undertaking, one dedicated to a higher purpose than mere personal gratification. And while he might well have been flummoxed by the anything-goes ethos of present-day social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, he also imagined a system that allowed groups of individuals to take part in collaborative experiences like lectures, opera performances, or scholarly meetings, where they might “applaud” or “give ovations.” It seems a short conceptual hop from here to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button.

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Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.