Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Internet Guru Clay Shirky Speaking At Brooklyn Heights Association Annual Meeting Says We Need Libraries Because Of Holes In The Internet

Internet guru Clay Shirky:  We need libraries.  Why?  Because there is lots that you won't find on the internet.- Photo by Jonathan Barkey
Last week the Brooklyn Heights Association introduced Clay Shirky, the author/digital thought leader/NYU professor/Brooklyn Heights area resident as its featured speaker at its annual meeting, to talk about “what the internet does to culture.”  There are plenty who suspected that in selecting Shirky as its speaker for the meeting the BHA was attempting to convey that the BHA is technologically hip and therefore qualified and even prescient in supporting the sale and shrinkage of the neighborhood’s library.

Digital happy talk? If that was the BHA’s goal it wasn’t exactly a slam dunk or even an easy lay up.  Quite the contrary.  Mr, Shirky explained that because of the holes in the internet, the significant material that is missing from the what you can find there, we need our libraries.

Mr. Shirky had a little help in making this point about libraries from the podium: my question to him during the ensuing question and answer session.  My question was about what you won’t find on the internet.  By the way, in asking the question, I made no mention of "libraries."

I commenced my question with a personal example: One of my aunts was frequently referred to as the “First Lady of Chicago,” which I think accurately indicates that she was a very well known individual.  When she walked down a Chicago Street everyone knew her.

When I early on developed a love of and fascination with the internet I looked for my aunt, plugging her name into a search engine and found that in the virtual world of the internet she virtually didn’t exist, and that was because of the very recent time period in which she existed.  Her many several decades were slightly pre-internet.  Walk into a good library and you could learn about her, but not on the internet.*
(* Because this article is largely about things that are not on the internet I am going to leave my aunt’s name unstated here.  Perhaps a commenting reader will disclose her name which can ultimately be discerned from the internet with some detective work.  One hint: Her last name made the “First Lady” title somewhat confusing.  When I visited my aunt I would meet and spend time with all manner of celebrities.  She regularly borrowed the Playboy limousine to whip around the city.  Often we’d run into the rather shy- my opinion- Mr. Heffner in the lobby of where she lived.  I remember climbing into a limo at crack of dawn with her, shaking Gore Vidal’s weak handshake, as we headed off to do an early AM interview program, and I remember conversing with comedian Alan King about how to improve the world after sitting with him at a Lainie Kazan nightclub performance as we headed up to a late night radio program and thrusting upon him some of my high school student writing about which he was very gracious.  For years after the visits I spent in Chicago with my aunt I couldn’t watch television for any appreciable stretch without thinking, “I met that person in Chicago with my aunt”: Joan Rivers, Oddetta, Rosie Greer, Walter Cronkite.  Bob Crane, star of “Hogan’s Heros” who had done radio early in his career, told me that I should consider doing voiceover work and I seriously thought about his advice for years.  Another hint, when I first looked up my aunt’s name on the internet one of the only places I could find mention of her was in a Warren Commission Report document.  My aunt in her job talked to nearly everybody, including some people that were considered mobsters.) 
As I told Mr. Shirky, the perception I formed was that the internet presented a “thin rich topsoil” of recent events, but there was much missing from it.  Albeit it has some rocky bedrock too: It’s easy for me to find some information about my ancestors' Civil War participation (though not their letters that are in the Library of Congress).

I expressed my concern about the potential ephemerality and evanescence of things on the internet and the way, with various applied tilts to this sphere, things get crowded out.  I told Mr. Shirky that I didn’t doubt that he had caught up with the recent Frontline documentary, Generation Like.” That show confronts the viewer with the fact that a massive amount of material taking over the internet is, in fact, corporately curated.  (The program talks about “the man behind the curtain” and, using the promotion of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” film as an example, points out “What's designed to look like a grass roots wave of excitement is actually a meticulously planned marketing strategy. It may be 'catching fire,' but it was doused with gasoline [i.e. corporate dollars] beforehand.”)

Books by Tim Wu and Lewis Hyde
I mentioned Tim Wu and Lewis Hyde, two names I knew that Mr. Shirky would have to know, who both write about the impoverishment of the public sphere, Wu writing about how it occurs when media industries inevitably trend toward monopoly and Hyde talking about the disappearance of the public commons through increasingly privatizated ownership of the ideas and information we consume.  They are both also professors, Wu a professor of law at Columbia and Hyde a professor at Harvard and Kenyon.

Another thinker on these subjects, Jaron Lanier, author of the recent, “Who Owns the Future,” disparages the facile utopianism of some internet/technological future hucksters.  (Eclectic in his thinking Lanier also doesn’t automatically sign on to the various strains of dystopic thinking either.)

I didn’t have time to get into it (though I was prepared), but at the same time that recent headlines are currently talking about the jeopardy into which court rulings have put “net neutrality,” we may be seeing the first effects of that: Netflixs users just saw their connection speeds slow downs so much the service became unusable and Netflixs ultimately anted up for restoration of that speed on a preferential basis after what some suspect was an intentional degradation of their access to the internet.  (Some readers may find themselves more disturbed if I report that at least one person I know complained that their PBS access over the internet was slowed at the same time.)
Ghostly trace of a vanished article

Another ghostly trace
It is scary how mutable the internet and technology can make things.  In 2008, in the scheme of things not so very long ago, I wrote a fairly widely read and circulated article for the Huffington Post, More Money for the Very Rich: An Unsporting Pursuit?  (I can actually say that before I wrote this I met Arianna Huffington, soliciting contributions for HuffPo, when it was in its original incarnation, but that is not so important to the point here).  My article is now no longer anywhere to be found on the Huffington Post site although there are a few ghostly traces of its prior existence.

When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL in 2011 in a complicated merger, some contributors like former U.S. Senate candidate, political organizer and Jonathan Tasini, objected (including legally) saying this was not why they had contributed upaid work to the site.  Now the Huffington Post has just changed its rules for commenting on its sites to require that anyone commenting let the HuffPo have access to their Facebook accounts.  The HuffPo says that they are doing this to ensurecivil discourse,” but is that the case?  Aren't they more likely simply seeking to data-mine the same data that Mark Zuckerberg has access to?  Much of the history of the internet has similarly consisted of the acquisition of companies in sell-outs and with their acquisition their disappearance, or the introduction of totally new sets of rules.

In an article we handed out at the BHA meeting I cited this ominous sentence from a very recent New York Times technology section article: “If you own a Nook, the fate of your books may now be up in the air.”  George Orwell’s "1984" is largely about how books and information with which the public is furnished can be manipulated to exist exclusively only in an ever-fluid present where what exists need have no relationship to the past.  In one of the most famous early events with respect to the Amazon kindle it was Orwell’s book itself that Amazon caused to mysteriously disappear from readers' tablets.

Brooklyn Eagle story about BHA meeting when it was upcoming- Picture shows Shirky protesting against PIPA which along with and like SOPA would greatly curtail the public utility of the internet.  Those laws, defeated by activists, are now in danger of coming back in the form of the TPP.
All of the above should be excellent grist for discussions that at least some groups ought to be having at the SXSW (South by Southwest) music and technology festival about to begin in Austin Texas (Friday, March 7 to Sunday, March 16).

The ability of technology to preserve and communicate knowledge is much vaunted, . . . we often fret over the indeliblity of the internet. . . if you post something indiscreet on Facebook will it haunt you forever?. . . But my question to Mr. Shirky was about what we are losing, whether with everything that is missing, potentially missing or pushed under on the internet are we in danger of a great loss, a great extinction of Mankind’s knowledge?
Me asking my question- Photo Jonathan Barkey
Responding to my question, Mr. Shirky began by saying that Tim Wu on the subject of monopolization (with its resultant corresponding lack of diversity) is “absolutely correct.”  Shirky offred his opinion that what is missing from the internet partly reflects an issue of what people are most interested in, with the relatively recent past being less interesting, but acknowledged that there is an information “gap between recent history and anything that predates our time on earth.”  He said it sounded like my aunt fell into that gap, further noting that digitized content on the web only starts with the 1980s.  My aunt died in 1992 and her activities along with her health had ebbed a number a few years before.  Going “backwards” in time, said Mr. Shirky so that other older information could be in the “public sphere” is “the work of libraries and archivists.”

At that point in the meeting a number of us held up our “Don’t Sell Our Libraries” signs and called out that our libraries should not be sold.

"Save The NYPL" flyers attendees band-aided to their chairs- Right now a people are signing a letter to Mayor de Blasio at the CSNYPL site
It has long been sort of mystery why the Brooklyn Heights Association has been supportively working towards a sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The library is at least the second most important library in the entire Brooklyn system.  Rather paternalistically the BHA has decided that the library should be sold and shrunk when that is not what the people of the neighborhood want.
BHA president Alexandra Bowie who thinks the reason we ought to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library is so that we don't have books on "phrenology"
From Wikipedia
Thursday night at the BHA meeting BHA President Alexandra Bowie offered a sort of goofy pseudo-explanation to clear up that mystery saying that the library should be sold and shrunk so that we won’t have books on “PHRENOLOGY” in it!


Is that why the art section in the library is now empty of books on art history?

Is that why the children's section has vast expanses of empty shelves?

One year ago, at the last Brooklyn Heights Association meeting, one of the books Jane Jacobs, famous urbanist and thinker, (“Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics,” was discussed by Brooklyn Heights Board President Jane Carroll McGroarty to elucidate the moral issues relative to selling off neighborhood hospitals libraries. Notwithstanding, and although Jane Jacobs' work is highly relevant to being able to understand and address climate change and myriad other problems in our society, only one copy of one one of Jane Jacobs seven books can be found in the Brooklyn Heights Library.  And you won’t be able to read those books on the internet.
It is not as if Jane Jacobs books take up a lot of shelf space.  For reference, three of books above, the two biggest, beside the rest of an entire Jacobs home library collection are not by Jacobs.
After the meeting the BHA representatives speaking with the press described themselves as `negotiating'* with the BPL about the subject of the library, but anyone who has attended any of the so-called “Community Advisory Committee” meetings knows that this is obviously not the case . .  It cannot be the case when the BHA has described itself as following the lead of the teeny-tiny “Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Library” group that has explicitly stated it isn’t permitted to “negotiate” for anything and can do nothing but what the BPL wants.
(* Instead of endorsing Mayor de Blasio's own call for a halt to the plan last July?)
Mr. Shirky does have some good news about how the internet operates sometimes.  His lead into the evening's discussion of the internet was to talk about Martha Payne, a British schoolgirl who was banned from posting pictures of her school’s meal on her very successful blog "NeverSeconds."  When word got out on the internet that her school banned her from posting pictures of the less-than-appetizing meals there was a viral furor that liberated Ms. Payne from the injustice.

A Facebook post about Matthew Zadrozny gone viral
 The week of the BHA meeting the fight to save New York City's libraries from being sold off and shrunk was having its own viral success.  After “Humans of New York,” which is both a for-purchase book and Facebook page, posted a picture of Matthew Zadrozny together with his statement of activism to save the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, the post received almost a quarter of a millionlikes” and over 52,000 shares (at last count 231,091 likes and 52,999 shares).  The astronomical, sudden and unusual popularity of the post and its relationship to the lurking news story resulted at least five articles in: The Atlantic, New York Metro, The Wire, Melville House, and Gothamist.  In fact, during an discussion with former Senator Harris Wofford at NYU's Gallatin School last night respecting the history of civil rights and race and activism NYPL president Anthony W. Marx noted the success the campaign against the NYPL's Central Library Plan has had in going viral. "It's amazing," he said.

Mr. Zadrozny was at the BHA meeting working to save libraries, picture below.
From left to right, Matthew Zadrozny, Micahel D. D. White, Carolyn McIntyre, Christabel Gough at the BHA meeting- Photo by Jonathan Barkey
In another example of the way that the internet can function with respect to these meetings, the Brooklyn Heights Blog published an article about the BHA meeting and the actions of Citizens Defending Libraries (I am a cofounder).  It is uncertain how flattering that article (Citizens Defending Libraries Has One Hiss-terical Week, By Homer Fink on March 2, 2014) was actually meant to be to Citizens Defending Libraries, but it presented a poll on who people agreed with, Citizens Defending Libraries or the Brooklyn Heights Association.  Approval for Citizens Defending Libraries has been hovering around 92% with approval for the BHA around 5 or 6%.  (You can still got to that link to vote, hopefully for CDL.)

Photo Jonathan Barkey

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