As we enter a new year, it’s good to set our sights on what we hope to achieve and how we plan to get there.
Let’s hear it for reckless enthusiasm!
It may seem out of character for a proponent of scholarly publishing to promote recklessness (or even enthusiasm, for that matter), but when I look back at the events that have brought about the important and welcome changes in scholarly communications in my (long) lifetime, I fail to see a case to be made for prudence. Although most readers of this blog have been trained analytically and methodically and understand the virtue of placing one foot in front of the other, step by step, incrementally moving toward the consensually established goal, innovations of the best kind seem to take place in leaps and bounds—except when they don’t, when they crash and burn instead.
Thus I found myself in the mid-1990s, as the Internet bubble was just beginning to burst out of its Levi’s, sitting at a seminar organized by a major management consulting firm. Most of the two dozen or so attendees were from the leading cable television and telephone companies. (They were called RBOCs back then.) The topic? The explosion in network capacity, for which there was no known use; there wasn’t even an imagined possible use. In the view of the consulting team and the bulk of the attendees, Wall Street had gone mad. Where was the data, the programming, to come from that would fill all the miles of fiber optics? What could possibly be sent though the underseas cables that could ever justify the cost of laying the cables in the first place? Everyone shook their heads. Too much capacity, not enough bits and bytes. There were bad times ahead for network communications.
Of course they hadn’t heard of YouTube. No one had even dreamed about YouTube or any of the other bandwidth-sucking Web services that were soon to spring from user-generated content. UGC! What an amazing and entirely unforeseeable phenomenon! There was no Wikipedia, no eBay; high school kids did not routinely create musical mash-ups on Mac laptops. This was 15 years ago, which should give us pause when we try to think about what is likely to develop in the next 15. Anybody care to write a five-year plan? A three-year plan?
As I write this, the sneering of Bob Dylan springs to mind: “You went to the finest schools, Miss Lonely “ and (from “Tombstone Blues”) “useless and pointless knowledge.” We are very well-read; it’s well-known.
So Wall Street went nuts and helped to build more network capacity than anyone could imagine how to use. Internet connections rapidly migrated from universities to corporations and then to residences, where the speed of the typical connection leaped from 14.4 kps to 28 kps, and then briefly to 56 kps before entering the first rung of broadband (approximately 1 mps). For a whopping $30 a month, my household now has incoming access of 3 mps and comfortably supports 5-6 computers and the occasional iPod Touch, some of which are engaged in video chat and real-time movie viewing. God bless those crazy people on Wall Street.
More importantly, the explosion in network capacity gave us cloud computing, and of course the preeminent cloud company, Google. I defy anyone involved in scholarly communications to assert that the reckless enthusiasm that gave rise to Google and Google Scholar (and, soon, Google Editions) was not, in retrospect, a chance worth taking. But at the time, it appeared to be gross foolishness—and it was.
Disruptions come from all directions. Whereas problems stare at us in the face, solutions can sneak in through the back door. Consider the twisted tale of newspaper recycling. Twenty years ago this was viewed as a big environmental problem. Newspapers were leveling forests; a paper was read once and then tossed away. To deal with this, municipalities set up impressive recycling programs, with the goal of having today’s New York Times appear as tomorrow’s corrugated cardboard shipping carton.
It’s too bad we hadn’t yet imagined Craigslist. By inadvertently serving to disaggregate the local newspaper, Craigslist drew away the leading source of revenue for newspapers, classified advertising. Among other things, this disruption is leading to the decline and possible disappearance of the printed newspaper. This is a warped solution to the environmental problem of mountains of old newspapers (computers are not entirely environmentally friendly, and the loss of newspapers may take an awful toll on civic life), but it does suggest that careful planning does not always lead to the most effective solution.
To tap another American lyricist, Cole Porter: “Life’s good, life’s grand./Future is all planned.”
It’s easy, of course, to preach the gospel of disruption at the expense of the established, the staid, the formal: everyone would prefer to be Groucho Marx than Margaret Dumont. When Wall Street parties, sometimes the next morning can look very ugly. This appears to be the case with the gross overinvestment in residential real estate, though perhaps one day we will discover hidden value in the classic California home, with a three- (sometimes four- ) car garage and a structure that stretches out to the very limit of the property line. There are indeed large investments being made today in scholarly communications that appear to be the economic equivalent of the 6,000 square foot starter home. I personally am uneasy about the capital being poured into digital aggregations of books and journals and other materials locked into PDFs, aimed at the library market. Where are the libraries going to find the money? Why would you publish something in a format that you cannot read on an Android phone?
On the other hand, we don’t know how these aggregations will ultimately be used. If we build it, they may not come—at least not now. But in time, new uses for old capacity may come to light. A huge aggregation of digitized books may find no more utility at first than their print counterparts, which often sit quietly and undisturbed on the library shelves. An aggregation may have emergent properties that are not readily observed until the aggregation is put into place. Will a digital mountain of books be of little use to the individual scholar, whose relationship to a book is direct and personal, but of great value to a data-miner, who (or perhaps which) discerns unanticipated patterns in the aggregation, leading to important new scholarly discoveries? Time will tell, but time can only make that report if we make the wild and reckless investment in the first place.
Even recklessness, however, can be managed to some degree. Not all reckless investments are created equal. It appears to be the rule that a reckless investment to preserve a practice or institution ultimately yields very little in the way of serendipitous outcomes, but crazy projects designed to bring new capacity on board may come to delight us all. This is the moral of cloud computing, and it may prove to be the benefit of massive digital aggregations. The leadership of an organization has to struggle with this conflict—preserve the past or gamble wildly on the future?—which is a hard one, as the past is tangible, but the future is vague or unforeseeable. At times, organization leaders simply have to take the leap, even without the support of a staff that has served the organization well over many years.
And this prompts my personal reckless enthusiasm: to build infrastructure that enables an unmediated, direct connection between scholars and scholarly materials. For example, there is a huge need for a new order of bibliographical records, which are transparent to end-users and easily integrated into machine-to-machine communications. Such records will be very expensive to create; no one knows how they will ultimately earn their keep. But then I think of these telco executives shaking their heads and saying, Where is the programming going to come from?
It will be there.