The World (and Jason Griffey) Interviews Vernor Vinge

Jason Griffey kicked off the session by introducing Dr. Vernor Vinge and talking about his many accolades as a science fiction writer and futurist.

Dr. Vinge then talked about how humans are the best tool-creating animal and the only animal that has figured out how to outsource their cognition — how to spread their cognitive abilities into the outside world.  As an example, he talked about how  writing and speaking are an outsourcing of our thinking and money represents an outsourcing of our perceived value for things.

As humans continue to outsource cognition more effectively by harnessing powerful machines and complex networks, we move closer to a point of technological singularity.  At this point, where a superhuman intelligence can be achieved by machines or some combination of humans and machines, it will become too difficult for humans to fully grasp the present or to predict the future.  As an example, he talked about how someone might be able to explain the present time and the fundamental changes that had led up to today to Mark Twain in an afternoon.  But what if that same person was trying to explain all of this to a goldfish or a chimpanzee?

Next Dr. Vinge discussed the forces of change that he sees driving society toward this envisioned state of  “technological singularity”.

He began by highlighting the power of humans together with computer networks.  He said that development and expansion of cell phone networks and computer networks and the billions of people on these networks has impacted the way we see the world. In the past, there was a “life boat earth” world view where population growth, lack of resources and environmental problems  would make competition among the populations of the world a negative sum game.  He compared that perspective on the world to the optimism that now stems from the use of networks for communication and crowdsourcing.   People can pursue their life interests with passion and enthusiasm and increasingly intelligent networks continue to get better at harnessing the power of intense creative energy for the benefit of  all.

Then he talked about the concept of intelligence amplification He indicated that users who start to develop an intimate enough interface with computers could potentially become superhuman.  The computer becomes sort of a “neo neo cortex”.   He offered some current examples of how computers are already creating an augmented reality such as Heads-Up Displays that enhance what is being viewed to offer the benefit of additional data and context.

He then explored the potential for fine grained distributed systems or Digital Gaia.  He underscored that while the computing power and potential of vast server farms is highly publicized as it relates to Google, Amazon, Microsoft, this is not the only way or the best way to capitalize on available technologies. For some tasks, he said that it is much more favorable to use embedded systems of microprocessors. As an example, there is potential that scientists might want to monitor the metabolism of the individual cells within the human body by placing a microprocessor in every cell and this type of approach would scale well with low power nodes.  The outcome of such a project would be quite strange– “where reality becomes its own database.”

Jason Griffey asked Dr. Vinge about his early experiences with libraries and he talked about how he used to visit relatives and take advantage of their library cards so that he could read books from other library’s science fiction collections.  He talked about the special role of librarians as enablers of the future and guardians of the past.

When asked about ereaders, he indicated that he did not have an ereader currently and that he typically relies on a laptop or desktop for most of his reading and research since he is consumed by finishing a book.  He also expressed concern about the need to better understand DRM and the “pyramid of standards and legalities” associated with ebook devices.

Dr. Vinge then addressed whether it was possible that technological singularity would not happen.  He said that some have made the argument that a single neuron is more powerful than most powerful super computer and if true that could delay technological singularity.  Over the next 10 to 30 years, he said, “we will be getting answers that only great philosophers and college sophomores have talked about.”  He said that for a long time it had just been assumed that a machine could never play chess and then there was IBM’s Big Blue and things like this just keep gettting chipped away.

LITA Top Tech Trends ALA 2010


Gregg Sylvis, Chair for the LITA Top Trends Committee kicked off the session.  Six panelists were  each to address current trends, imminent trends and long term trends (3-5 years out).

John Blyberg, Darien Library (CT), Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience

Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President OCLC Research and Chief Strategist, OCLC

Jason Griffey, Head of Library Information Technology, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Monique Sendze, IT Director Johnson County Library, Overland Park, Kansas

Cindy Trainor, Coordinator for Library Technology and Data Services, Eastern Kentucky University

Joan Frye Williams, IT Consultant


Blyberg discussed the new world of  “multilevel convergent media.”

  • With the explosion of new devices and communication channels, people are finding new ways to describe, explain, and interact with the world around them, and the boundaries between personal and professional domains have been blurring.
  • This has paved the way for a move to devices that are optimized across multiple applications to support diverse communication and information sharing needs.
  • Now it is becoming possible to reach a new point of synergy where the total impact across applications is becoming greater than the sum of its parts.  For example, writing a research paper is not a very good experience on the iPhone but the iPad will work well for this and across many other critical applications.

Dempsey called out some of the changes relating to mobile devices and their implications.

  • Much of the early development for mobile devices has related to the direct translation of the web applications to a mobile environment.Now there are opportunities to look at how services can be atomized and reconfigured.
  • The web experience can be tied to physical locations, as with the QR codes found at the ProQuest booth.
  • There is also the phenomenon of “microcoordination” or checking in to better manage space and logistical challenges.  For example, a quick call or IM can now be used to change the time or location of a personal or business meeting on the fly.

Griffey talked about how content is no longer tied to a container.

  • In the past, the container (book, journal, etc.) has defined how the information has been consumed and displayed.
  • Now we are starting to see “container sans interface.”  For example, users now expect the library catalog to look like Google, with less emphasis on the various types of information containers.
  • Use of iPad with touch screen does not focus the user on containers but just surfaces the information.
  • He feels that the touch screen is setting a new interface standard for browsing and exploring content, noting that after showing his iPad to his two-year-old daughter, she started to touch the screen of their TV expecting it to behave in the same way.

Sendze discussed the importance of libraries responding to the rapid evolution of mobile technologies in order to stay relevant to their users.

  • It is applications and software that make iPhone different from competing devices and this will also distinguish the iPad from its emerging competitors.
  • Libraries need to move aggressively into mobile applications and software as increasingly users will be coming to the library expecting to use their own devices rather than the library’s computers.

Trainor surfaced an increased emphasis user-driven collection development.

  • Libraries need to be more about getting people to things rather than owning them.
  • Many libraries were adding a complete set of MARC records from an ebook provider and then buying the books that they do not have in response to user demand.

Williams surfaced many of the changes that are being driven by the current economic environment.

  • Economic dislocations have been the genesis of a new creative economy.  There has been an explosion of everything from niche researchers  to pastry chefs.  Typically, these business startups are hyper-local and home based.
  • Libraries need to explore what can be done to create an optimal environment for these users. This is a significant change in mindset because being an incubator for these enterprises means supporting the messy, iterative activity that is needed to spark creativity.
  • Rather than focusing on serving up content, libraries need to focus on being the foundation for a creative process.  It is akin to moving from a grocery store to a kitchen mentality.


Williams talked about the blurring between object descriptions and the actual object.

  • There is a new practice called “fabbing” where 3D descriptions are facilitating the creation of the referenced object.  This means that the line is blurring between comprehensive information about a thing and the thing itself.
  • Librarians to find new ways manage recall and rights for 3D e-versions of things, because the  e-world of libraries is flatter than the real world is.
  • Librarians typically have not developed these types of design sensibilities needed to manage these e-objects effectively because the library world has traditionally been so text based.

Trainor called out the FaceBook privacy backlash and its implications.

  • Openness in terms of technology and ideas could be impacted as many people are being more thoughtful about sharing their personal information.
  • At the same time, there is an important piece of our cultural heritage that could be lost as it is not clear who if anyone would be in a position to preserve the rich tapestry of information that has been posted on Facebook.

Sendze talked about changes as more and more library technology infrastructure moves into the Cloud.

  • This change has the potential to be very disruptive.
  • It could significantly reduce library back room IT needs and it will likely mean that the IT function will need to be more embedded in the day-to-day work of library.

Griffey signaled the potential disruptive effects of low-cost e-Readers.

  • Citing recent price drops for the Kindle and the Nook , $99 eInk reading devices could be a possibility in the upcoming holiday season.
  • Low-cost or even disposable devices could ultimately be married with ebook content that is freely available on the web.

Dempsey talked about how new discovery layers are helping libraries to overcome the fragmentation of library resources.

  • Users appreciate a Google-like single search box and faceted results, and they typically perceive that everything in the collection has been surfaced, while there are generally opportunities to expand elements of the collection that are made available in this fashion.
  • There are also many other opportunities to surface content outside of the library collection such as Google Scholar and Google Books.
  • A third dimension is surfacing resources not in the current collection that could be made available through Patron-driven ILL or on-demand purchasing.

Blyberg used Seth Godin’s term “the dip” to stage his prediction of new struggles with open source software.

  • He indicated that many open source library projects were hitting a point where success reaches a plateau and progress gets harder and harder to achieve.
  • Funding is one issue since library budgets are under significant stress and while grants have often provided for startup costs, they are typically not funding ongoing costs.
  • Also, he indicated that open source solutions have in many cases failed to keep pace with the features and functionality offered by commercial vendors.


Griffey singled out 4G cellular infrastructure and its power to transform mobile applications.

  • With speeds of 100 Megabits per second, it will provide ethernet capacity in your pocket.
  • He talked about a new small rapid scanner developed in Japan that could ultimately allow quick scanning and OCR of Encyclopedia Brittanica or Oxford English Dictionary by a mobile device.
  • Libraries will need to be prepared for these types of technology shifts in order to manage implications for library services and copyright.

Sendze anticipates an acceleration of profiling and the death of Internet anonymity.

  • Users are freely giving over their personal information to search engines and these commercial providers are doing profiling and predictive analysis.
  • Libraries are still focused on protecting user privacy, despite the fact that lots of data is now available that can be used to enhance the experience of their users.
  • Users likely trust libraries to safeguard their personal information a lot more than they do commercial vendors and users will likely be open to their personal information being used to anticipate needs and to enhance their experience with the library.

Trainor predicted that ultimately physical copy scarcity would be gone.

  • As the abundance of information continues to grow, scarcity is manifesting itself in new areas such as bandwidth.  Libraries should be helping to bridge these gaps for the benefit of all their users and society at large.
  • In the end, it will also be up to libraries to add value in new ways rather than just securing content.  As an example, changes will be needed in library instruction when the only service point is the web and users are getting most of the resources they need for free.

Williams drew a comparison between the information industry and the energy industry.

  • Similarities stem from the relationship between the suppliers and their customers in both sectors.
  • Libraries are acting like niche green technology companies that are blazing down a new path, often propelled by grant funding. They are committed to building their own “information ecosystem” that is self-contained and pure and free from contaminants, like a locally-owned, socially conscious information utility.
  • Resource and technology challenges abound and it is difficult to sustain investments in technology infrastructure for the long term.
  • One potential impact could be an epidemic of “dataspills” that involves sensitive or personal information and potentially even crackdowns by the government.

Blyberg discussed the future transformations that are being driven by current economic pressures.

  • Current economic pressures have brought a “come to Jesus moment” for all libraries.
  • Many libraries have had to admit that they have very inefficient backend processes where significant benefits can be achieved through automation and process improvements.
  • Libraries are discovering that they can still be true to what it means to be a library while sharpening their focus on transforming the user experience.

Dempsey called for a shift for libraries from managing supply to managing demand.

  • He talked about the complex suite of systems and relationships for supplying information that are driving overhead and keeping libraries from focusing more of their energies on the user experience.
  • Greater focus will be needed on the demand side such as helping users rank, relate, or recommend items.
  • Embedding  resources in research environments and courseware  and building community around library resources will also derive significant benefits by integrating library resources into user workflows.
  • Libraries also need to focus on sparking indirect discovery through surfacing Google material, curation and management of institutional outputs (IRs, etc), and search engine optimization.
  • Only with continued focus on the demand side can libraries get to the ultimate desired state – where the mission of the library has become helping users to manage their own library.