The Internet (and technology) Won’t Replace the Library

As a class we have spent a great deal of time talking about how technology affects the library world — for both good and ill — and what these effects may mean for the future of our profession. Throughout my, admittedly brief, career as a librarian I have heard many questions about what the purpose of our institution can now be defined as and whether or not we will even exist in the next 25 to 50 years. Much of this worry stems from a single source: Technology, specifically in the form of the Internet. It is seen as both a helpful friend and a terrible enemy and while this may be somewhat true, both statements tend towards the extreme in both cases. The Internet, like all other things created by humans, is a tool. So, to both the current professionals and the major media outlets that run stories that question our need and purpose I say: Calm down. We aren’t going anywhere. Here’s why…

It’s always been funny to me that so many people don’t seem to realize that the internet doesn’t actually do very much that’s new. Before the internet, people were reading the news, publishing essays and stories, driving all over the place, sharing photos of kittens, puppies and babies, ordering stuff for delivery, looking at pictures of naked people and even trolling their neighbors via the post office. The difference is that currently, doing these things on the internet is cheaper and more convenient than the (older) alternatives, and that’s what makes the Internet so popular. For most people much of what they do on the Internet is “free,” however, if that were to ever change — if the internet were to become more costly and/or less convenient than the older options — its current popularity would be unlikely to last.

As we heard in early October, the idea of “free” as it exists on the Internet can either be seen as a positive thing (Chris Anderson) or as a negative thing (Jaron Lanier). But what makes the apps and services we use online “free”? The answer is a vast amount of investment money and cheap debt. The hope from the investors and the banks is that one of two things will happen: Either a company will take off and be acquired by one of the big dogs of the online world (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc.) at an inflated price or become a big dog themselves. The benefit of all this investment capital and lines of credit is that it gives the ordinary user the illusion that the app/service/website (and thus, the Internet overall) is “free” because the money needed to create the service is (momentarily) being provided outside their own pocket. This will eventually change as the markets on the Internet become more saturated and investments become riskier. Even now apps that were once free are now costing, or apps that are still free are now littered with ads (Instagram is guilty of this last offence). The same can be said for websites wherein one must either now subscribe for full content or face the annoyance of more and more invasive ads at every click. Eventually the Internet will follow the trajectory of all other industries and become more expensive and/or less convenient.

In addition to the illusion of being free, the Internet as an industry also tends to make entire businesses or markets either obsolete or significantly smaller in number of employees. In the introduction to his book, Who Owns the Future, author and technologist Jaron Lanier states that: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. […] But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people.” And Lanier is not the only person to see this coming. In June of 2015 Business Insider ran a story about Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics consultant Wendell Wallach who warns that we have reached “a tipping point where technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates.” The story goes on to link to an Oxford University study from 2013 that found “some 47% of present jobs in the U.S. could be computerized in the next 10 to 20 years.” “This is an unparalleled situation and one that I think could actually lead to all sorts of disruptions once the public starts to catch on that we are truly in the midst of technological unemployment,” Wallach said. In the name of fairness, I will note here that two days after the Wendell Wallach story ran Business Insider ran an opinion piece from one of their columnists that called the Wallach theory “garbage.” Jim Edwards points out that the industries that have been wiped out in the past have always been replaced by new industries — his example is that of the beeper industry being replaced by the cell phone industry, and while this is true, I fear that this will not always be the case. For instance, the ability for homes to be created via 3D-Printer is rapidly growing and improving and once perfected will no doubt displace a great deal of traditional construction workers. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/02/05/yes-that-3d-printed-mansion-is-safe-to-live-in/) And while it is true, 3D-Printed Housing will create its own industry, as we have seen, technology-based industries tend to employ fewer people than the industries they replace.

Opposite the economic realities that technology and the Internet will create in the coming years there are also the physical realities that the Internet itself is about to bump into. Nick Mediati reported for PC World in May of 2015 that “according to New Scientist, the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet’s Backbone have a maximum data capacity of about 100 terabits per second. Rene-Jean Essiambre of Alcatel-Lucent says those cables could reach that full capacity within five years.” If this happens a number of things may happen. Most likely, Internet Service Providers will go about laying down more wire, but this will raise the costs to the consumer. The alternative would be to allow the Internet to reach its capacity wall and simply deal with it. This would cause any number of problems, including frequent blackouts and slower service speeds. Either of these outcomes will tarnish the luster of the Internet.

Now, I am certainly not saying that these economic and technological situations will not affect the library as an institution — on some level they most certainly will — however, I do believe that these changes will not make the library an obsolete relic of human history. In fact, I believe these changes will make the library even more valuable to the communities it serves and my reasoning for this is rooted in the elasticity of the library as an institution.

Say, for instance, that in the next eight years a solution is found that keeps the Internet running for a price within the acceptable limitations of most people. This would likely mean that economically more and more technologies will be in existence that have ended or shrank current businesses, creating a rise in unemployment and under-employment. As we have seen in the aftermath of the Great Recession, situations like this create an incentive for people to use their library more; it becomes of greater value to the community when times are tough. If this is not the case, and the internet does reach its capacity in eight (or however many) years and steps have to be taken to keep it running but those steps make it either more expensive (ISPs laying more cable) or less convenient (ISPs simply allowing for random outages to keep prices low) then the library would still be a destination for people seeking entertainment and education both due to the library’s collection as well as the fact it may be the only place in a community where high-speed Internet is available.

If, on the other hand, the world continues its current pace in relation to technological speed and growth (despite both science and nature telling us this is impossible, see this article for more on that: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-will-the-internet-reach-its-limit/ ) then the library can simply continue what it is currently doing: redesigning itself not as a “book vault” but as a collaborative community space that offers access to more expensive technologies — such as 3D Printers — as well as the space needed to meet, create and learn.

The Indian mathematician and librarian S.R. Ranganathan is well known to students of information science and his influence is most felt in the “Five Laws” of library science he put forth in 1931. The fifth law, that the library is a growing organism, I have always felt to be the most pertinent and important. In one sentence Ranganathan encapsulated the ability for the library as an institution to expand, contract and change with the times. Technologies may come and go, industries rise and fall, but the library — in some form — will always be here.

Sources:

The Internet is reaching capacity:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2923084/researchers-the-internet-backbone-is-reaching-its-physical-limits.html

Business Insider — Technology kills jobs.

http://www.businessinsider.com/technology-is-destroying-jobs-and-it-could-spur-a-global-crisis-2015-6?r=UK&IR=T

Business Insider — No, it doesn’t, that’s garbage.

http://www.businessinsider.com/new-technology-does-not-destroy-jobs-or-create-unemplyoment-2015-6?r=UK&IR=T