Saturday, December 31, 2011

Here's to January

I've posted a lot less this month than I wanted to, due to what seems like one illness after another. I'm hoping to be back in action again in January. In the meantime, there's a great New Yorker cartoon that is at once appropriate for the end of the year and relevant to libraries, at least from where I'm sitting. I don't think I can preview it here without upsetting Conde Naste, so here's the link.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ultimately, You Can't Tell People How To Use Technology

I've been mulling over a New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell about Steve Jobs. It characterizes Jobs as someone who tinkered with products until they achieved what he considered perfection. And because he considered the finished products perfect, there was no need to allow others (i.e. users) to tinker with them further. Thus a lot of the devices that Jobs gets credit for are also strangely closed, or they would be if their maker had had his way.

I find this problematic on a number of levels.

First, I recently came across the phrase "If you can't modify it, it isn't yours" (in the comments section), and it resonates. It's very rare that a device (or a living space, or any object really) is so suited to its purpose that there is no desire for alteration. I would say that the best objects anticipate this, and flexibility is built into the design so that users can customize as needed. And maybe a lot of design problems could be prevented by focusing on the notion that the user directs the device rather than the other way around.

When I think about my use of Apple products, I give them a lot of credit for successfully anticipating what I want to do. When I got my own computer for the first time, a first-generation iMac, I was attracted to the idea that I could plug it in and do what I needed very simply. There were times the iMac wasn't perfect, but I was able to work around them. Even if iPhones are actually somewhat locked down technically, users feel free to customize them with apps.

Observing people at the library's public computers, I notice that they regularly disregard our attempts to explain how they can and cannot use the machines. They just try and do whatever they need to, wherever they sit down first and regardless of what the signs say.

Put simplistically, the technology that wins in the long run is the technology that works. If you try to get a device to do something and it tells you NO all the time, you've discovered a market for something better. In my experience, if I'm frustrated by technology, I know I am probably not the first to be irritated, and I know that someone more computer savvy than I am has probably found or made a solution. Or they're about to.

That there are so few perfect tools is magnified by modern technology. When something becomes available for purchase, download, or installation, its users -- connected to each other & frequently collaborating -- instantly take over and make it work for them. This makes it surprising that we're willing to mythologize one single person in this process. It also makes it surprising that we're attempting to build durable electronic libraries while everything is still so untried.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The False Economy of E-Textbooks

It's time for another round of coordinating the library's textbooks-on-reserve service here. Every semester I look to see if we're any closer to moving away from the print -- I keep seeing various news stories about the impending dominance of the electronic versions. I notice that our school book store is increasingly promoting the online versions too. On the supply side, things do seem to be heading in that direction. The message to students seems to be all about saving money, which I could see being very persuasive at the community college. In the long run, however, I have to wonder if there is truly a cost saving.

First, there is the issue of portability. Online classes aside, if everyone taking classes had a tablet or a laptop, the electronic version might (might!) rival the print version. But not everyone does, and not all classrooms have computers. Even the number of public computers available on campus seems to be shrinking. The resulting level of inconvenience should be apparent to anyone.

Then there is the issue of durability, both of the book and the book's content. An online textbook might not face the same risk of damage or loss as a printed one, but switching access on and off depending on whether a bill has been paid doesn't seem wonderful either. Plus let's not forget Penguin's recent maneuvers or Amazon's remote deletion of the Orwell books a couple of years ago.

Also I wonder about content retention after students no longer have access to the book (i.e after their temporary access expires). I know people like to imagine they are in control of their computing and could hack into ebooks to copy and keep them forever, but actually the trend in computing seems to be moving away from that, thanks largely to smart phones.It seems like if you wanted to review something after the class ended, you would need to make another purchase. (Or heck, I don't know; maybe students will be savvy enough to print out the entire books when they do have the access.)

As far as the publishing business goes, e-textbooks in their current form seem like a great deal. The pesky used market is effectively eliminated, access to student customers is newly unconstrained, and there's a captive audience if professors make the texts mandatory. The question is, will consumers bite?