4.7 Summary and Further Discussion

Information is more than data. It must be processed and communicated in order to have the potential to convey meaning. When this takes place, participants in the exchange (and the whole culture) are altered. Every civilization depends on its transportation and communications technologies. These were once essentially the same, but the latter have now become critically important on their own. Together with the new means for storing and manipulating large amounts of information, fast communications make unlimited access to information available to citizens of the industrialized nations for the first time.

Services offering such data access exist now and have already had a strong impact on many professionals, who have begun to rely more on looking up facts than on memorizing them. It is likely that this way of doing things will be adapted by most people in the near future, though costs must come down and ease of use improve substantially first--steps that all technologies require to become widely accepted.

As this takes place, new technologies will have the normal transforming effect on ideas and demands that created them. Already, hypertext promises to revolutionize the scholarly use of libraries. The extension of this concept to that of the full Metalibrary facility promises to make a wide range of benefits available to the general populace.

Information technology has the problems of accuracy, privacy, prejudice, and state control to overcome. If not, it could cause more problems than it solves. People may have to live in a world where the concept of privacy has changed radically or ceased to exist for many aspects of life.

The effect on decision making is also dramatic because information availability empowers more informed decisions. It does not guarantee good ones, however. The Metalibrary may also make world views into more visible and obvious entities, to the point where they can become commodities for rent or sale. There are both benefits and disadvantages to information technologies, as has been the case for all others.

Discussion Questions

1. Describe the terms hypertext and Metalibrary and distinguish between them.

2. Use your present library to find and describe the term dynabook. Try such subject headings as technology--the future; Alan Kay; Xerox Corp. How long did it take? How long would it in a hypertext?

3. You are in a (paper-based) library researching your master's degree thesis in mathematics and stumble across a brilliant paper: Sutcliffe, Richard J., and Alspach, Brian. "Vertex Transitive Graphs of Order 2p," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences , v. 319 (May 14, 1979): 18-27. You are captivated by the ideas presented there, and several new theorems that follow from their results immediately come to mind. Has anyone already thought of your ideas? Describe the steps you must take in a paper library to find out who has referenced this paper in a bibliography in the intervening years. Go to your library and do this, making a list of derivative papers and following them through later works as well. When you get tired, estimate how much time it would take to finish. Now describe how this would work using a hypertext system and estimate the time savings. Keep in mind that this is a rather obscure paper with few citations. More popular ones can be orders of magnitude more difficult to trace entirely, because the citations fan out into a maze of papers.

4. Another library task is the making of book bibliographies. This is a little easier than following a paper through citations but can still be quite a challenge. Use your paper library catalogue to make a bibliography of all available books on the computer programming language Modula-2. Now obtain access to an electronic bibliographic data base (your library may subscribe) and perform the same search. How many titles do you get using each method? How long did each take?

5. This chapter has mainly presented the positive side of universal information availability and has been relatively optimistic about the technology becoming available to do it. Write a paper attacking this concept, pointing out its weaknesses, and saying why it can never, should never, or will never come to pass--either from a software/hardware or from a social point of view.

6. Write a paper in which you extend the concept of the Metalibrary in content or use. There are many things it could be or do besides those that are given in this chapter. The more unusual or original can be sent to the author who will include some of the best in a subsequent edition if enough buy the first to make a second worthwhile. Some small prize may be given for the best idea.

7. What effect would the Metalibrary have on a hobby like stamp collecting? Be careful!

8. What effect would worldwide availability of information have on the gap between rich and poor nations?

9. What will the effect on the size and scope of government be? Will it tend to become larger or smaller? Why?

10. Who should manage the Metalibrary and how--or should anyone?

11. What degree of privacy over personal details can and should be guaranteed? What should an individual be able to keep secret? Perhaps you would care to argue that privacy should no longer exist, or at least that the general diffusion of information cuts down on abuses and on the need for privacy.

12. If privacy is a fundamental human right or urge rather than, say, only a legislated right, how will people compensate for their loss of information privacy by increasing some other aspects of personal privacy?

13. Research the subject of computer security and describe the methods of preventing unauthorized access to data in some detail.

14. How much control should government have over data repositories and data transmission? Should such be regulated, taxed, or even run by the government? Give reasons.

15. Look up and explain in at least some detail, the methods used to encrypt data and messages. Include a discussion of DES, RIA, and PGP.

16. The body of the text argues that it is effectively impossible for government to control encryption technology. Refute this.

17. In the Chapter, much of the contents of current news media were described as "news editorials." Do you agree with this description? Why, or why not? What (if anything) should be done to change the situation?

18. Discuss carefully the degree to which the Metalibrary facility would promote understanding, cross-cultural communications, and better decision making. Will such things be improved, or will people simply become more isolationist?

19. To what extent is information available electronically now? Write a summary of the major categories of data bases that can be accessed by the public, their cost, and the type of information they contain.

20. What effect would the Metalibrary have on poverty, illiteracy, poor sanitation, economic exploitation, and discrimination in (a) Western industrial nations, (b) present and former communist nations, and (c) third world nations. Specifically, what ethical obligations (if any) do users of such an intellectual facility have to employ it in bettering living and working conditions for others?

21. The author suggests that collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated the ethnic wars of Eastern Europe (indeed a much earlier version of this text predicted both). Either argue that Western Europe is unstable and subject to the same kind of warfare, or argue that there is good reason to believe that Western Europe is now immune to such problems.

22. Attempt to apply an information analysis to the problems of the Middle East. Could more knowledge of other peoples and their ways make any difference to the inhabitants of Israel and her neighbours?

23. Answer the same question as in #22 but with reference to India and Pakistan.


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Internet resources:

Cranor, Lorrie <email:lorracks@cs.wustl.edu>. Links to Sources of Computers and Society Information. St. Louis: Washington University. <http://www.cec.wustl.edu/~cs142/links.html> (1997 10 17)

Kay, Charles D. Computers, Ethics, and Society: Online Coursebook. Spartanburg SC: Wofford College, Feb 10, 1997. <http://www.wofford.edu/~kaycd/competh.htm> (1997 10 17)

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises