"Everyday problems in an information society ," Handbook of Information Technology and
Office Systems, Cawkell, A.E., ed., North-Holland Press, Oxford, U.K., Chapter 48 p.883-887, 1986.
CHAPTER 48. EVERYDAY PROBLEMS IN AN INFORMATION SOCIFTY
Institute for Scientific Information, Philadelphia
The information—conscious and the information literate society
(From: Handbook of Information Technology and Office Systems, Edited by A.E. Cawkell, CITECH Ltd. North-Holland, 1986)
While I think society as a whole has become very information conscious, unfortunately it is not yet information-literate. An "information-literate" is a person who knows the techniques and skills for using information tools in molding solutions to problems.
When people in all parts of society have rapid access to the information they want, we can say that the information conscious society has become the information society. Reduction in the cost and size of computers will accelerate the process. Of course, developments will depend on the technology available commercially. As memory becomes cheaper, it might be more economical to duplicate rather than centrally to store certain kinds of information. With such duplication a centralized World Brain wouldn’t be necessary at all. This kind of decentralization would prevent government or industry from obtaining a monopoly on the flow of information.
Once large numbers of people have computers at home, we can expect them to have a great impact on education. It may be possible for people to continue being educated until the day they die. Many people will no doubt become self-taught in many subjects before their old age although some educators are unimpressed by Computer Aided Education (CAI).
The physically handicapped or shut-ins stand to benefit greatly from developments such as home journals. They could receive information about books, magazines, or journal articles and audiovisual materials, through home terminals. Conceivably home terminals could give them the information they need to order hard copies through conventional or electronic mail.
Home terminals could provide access to legal and medical information. This would certainly be a boon for everyone regardless of economic level. Women and minorities could use the legal information to help combat job discrimination. As for medicine, people may have access to enough information to treat simple diseases, or take steps to prevent major ones like heart disease or cancer.
But the movement towards computer systems and displays and away from print-on-paper is subject to some very human constraints.
Scanning on video display units is technically possible right now, but it does not take into account the real shortcomings of video display units for prolonged reading purposes. It also ignores the realities of typographical and other aesthetic considerations that make scanning pleasant. In the foreseeable future, perhaps in five to ten years, flatbed portable screens may become commercially available — a device using, say, Compact Disk storage could have an enormous impact. That may make it possible to substitute the printed page with electronic images. However, many of’ us will continue to browse on planes and other places where electronic access, even if developed to perfection, will not be readily available.
Information in print or on a machine?
Online searching of databases has greatly increased in the last few years but it should be remembered that online services and printed indexes are not equivalent. Each has unique advantages. To give up one is to give up certain advantages. The cost may be less, but search capabilities are also diminished.
I do not mean to criticize ISI's online files by this defense of print. Our online Scisearch and Social Scisearch files are very useful for performing a number of searches. For example, the files are extremely valuable for doing complex multi-term searches. Using Boolean logic, users can search with almost any number of terms and quickly retrieve documents on highly specific topics. Obviously, online capability is essential for performing this type of search. In addition Scisearch has the advantage of being able to print the list of references cited by a particular source paper. But despite online’s low cost and importance in some search situations, it is still an immature technology which can be used only by trained search analysts. Therefore online enthusiasts have no right to deprive users of the benefits of printed indexes. The print versions of the Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index offer easy access to information for everyone — both library staff and library patrons.
The psychological reluctance with which many patrons approach a library is well documented in the literature. Many library users are not certain of the information they need. They have not carefully formulated a search question. And many have browsing needs rather than specific search needs. The absence of the printed index forces users to interface with the librarian and expose their feelings of ignorance and uncertainty about the information that they are seeking. The absence of a printed index means that they cannot begin to find answers themselves or browse to find information that will make their search a lot more specific. The probing reference interview is an abrasive process for people uncertain of the information they need. Not every user is an extrovert. Scholars often prefer to work alone unaided by librarians or others, well-intentioned as they may be.
Some online search services claim that online facilities are helping rather than hindering the development of printed indexes. We have not yet seen proof of that claim. On the other hand, we have seen proof that some subscribers, when given the option of online searching, will abandon their printed indexes to the detriment of a significant number of users. Since it is clear that one cannot raise the price of an online search to non-print subscribers to absurd levels, there may be no recourse other than to the policy of limiting online access to print-copy subscribers.
The late 1980’s will be a period of transition and testing. Right now, online technology lacks many of the important display features of the printed index. Considering the speed and direction in which computer technology is moving, those shortcomings probably are not permanent ones. There is no doubt that the relationship between online and printed indexes is in a period of transition. Nor is there any doubt that much testing has to be done to finally define the pricing philosophy that will accurately reflect that relationship.
The transition will be made even more complex by the emerging microcomputer revolution. It is not unreasonable to expect that by the end of the decade, central online databases may be replaced by local databases stored on and manipulated by microcomputers. By that time we may be sending out floppy disks or whatever, instead of printed volumes. This will happen only when we have managed to develop software, sufficiently transparent to the user, that will make it possible to do everything, and more, on a computer that can be done now with a printed index. Until that time, print indexes will still be frequently consulted in most libraries.
A new look at some ‘simple" problems
How can we apply our expertise, developed during the post-Sputnik period, to solve the problems of an increasingly information-conscious, but still information-illiterate, society?
The problem is that we as information scientists are unable to identify the everyday information problems of society. Rather, we too often confuse complexity with erudition.
Indeed, our preoccupation with complex and sophisticate information-delivery systems has prevented us, even to this day, from thinking seriously about these problems. In 1970, I mentioned the telephone director, problem as one that epitomized this situation. Have we professional information scientists, supposedly experts in the arts and science of indexing, even concerned ourselves with the mundane problems of ordinary people in the use of that most ubiquitous of indexes, the telephone book? Are we really aware that many people are actually afraid to use any type of index, and that their fear cuts them off from information — one of the most important resources available t them? While we have developed sophisticated methods for searching DNA sequences have you noticed any significant improvement in phone books lately?
Clearly it is too soon to tell, but hopefully the divestiture of AT&T will result in a telecommunications industry that is not only less conservative, but more responsive to consumer needs. After watching twenty years of unprecedented developments in computer and telecommunications technology, it is depressing to realize how little of that know-how is applied to everyday problems. Where are all the improvements we were promised to help us to locate a taxi, or even public toilet? The information revolution is here but we have only begun to talk about using information to deal with these seemingly trivial problems.
I believe it is our responsibility as information scientists not only to instruct society in the technology that is available, but also to identify the problems that need to be solved. In short, every profession must have conscience.
Information is more widely recognized as a natural resource in the post-industrial era, but we must not confuse our stockpiles of information riches with access to them. We have large pockets of information poverty and deprivation within an otherwise affluent society. We must ensure that the right access is maintained for everyone. We all, even the most destitute among us, have information needs.
Galbraith’s term "the affluent society" is rarely heard anymore possibly because of the series of recessions the US economy has suffered since the phrase was coined. Nor is it more comfortable for us to use terms like "tie post-industrial society" of Bell, or the "knowledge-production society" or Machlup, or even the "information-conscious society" of Garfield. None of these terms connotes affluence. We all tacitly assumed, as we solved our information problems we would also have solved our economic problems. The advent of this information society implied an affluent society for all.
Information does have the potential for solving problems of poverty not only because information is inherently economic in nature, but also because poverty is rooted in ignorance and lack of education. The poor and under-privileged constitute a vast information market waiting to be exploited. They always have been. The information industry will undoubtedly respond to explicit request for proposals by the government or implicit suggestions to solve their problems, but the question remains "Who pays"? Like the medical profession who takes the Hippocratic oath, we too must see to the information needs of our clients a term that, today, encompasses all of humanity.
But even in an information-rich society like the United States, we are the only country in the world to neglect its statistical information activities. Wassily Leontief, the Nobel prize-winning economist, has said "We are living in an information age without information. Washington is gutting the government’s statistics. They are cutting appropriations. Next year, we will know less about the American economy that we knew last year. We cannot effectively take advantage of modern computers, which enable us to deal with masses of information, because we haven’t got the information. Pieces of information are like a pile of bricks, not a building. You don’t collect information before you know what to do with it. The United States is the only advanced industrial country that does not have a real central statistical office to collect facts and figures".
The shortcomings of everyday information requirements
I believe information, like education, is the key to individual and personal survival. Of course, one can survive, after a fashion, without information. If you want to toil on a cooperative, back-to-nature farm somewhere, you may not miss today’s hectic information environment; indeed, that is what you might be attempting to escape. But this is survival of a special kind. You may soon realize, like the migrant farm workers, that rural life in America and elsewhere is not a Garden of Eden. Even the poorest peasant today realizes the value of television to both private pleasure and information in his life.
Back in 1970, I demonstrated how difficult and painful it could be to obtain information of even the most basic kind. I described the case of a poor woman in Johnstown, Pa, who was trying to locate the local legal aid society. She could not find the information in her directory because it was listed strictly alphabetically under "Cambria County Legal Aid Society". Do you realize that in 14 years - and in spite of AT&T’s claims to be listening — the appropriate cross-reference has still not been created? You still cannot find a listing under "Legal Aid Society". I tried myself just last week. If you look in the yellow pages, you’ll find thousands of lawyers but still no entry under "legal aid’. However, I did find a heading called "Lawyer Referral Service", which leads to community legal services. I tried that number and received a recorded message to call back on Tuesday, so I suggest you avoid trouble on Sunday or Monday.
As a more up-to-date example of information frustration, I give you the case of a recently arrived immigrant trying to find information about or instruction in English as a second language. I recently spent over an hour one Sunday before I could assemble the information needed for my foreign-born friend. Through perseverance I eventually learned, via the YMHA, about a language tutorial service provided by the Nationalities Service Center of Philadelphia. It is unfortunate that they do not have the wisdom to include an ad in the yellow pages alongside Berlitz & Interlingua.
But why was this service not known to the information people at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service? How about the Adult Education division of the Philadelphia School System? After all, they offer such courses themselves. Why not tell the new immigrant that language instruction is not only more immediately available through the Nationalities Service Center, but that the International House of Philadelphia also organizes tutorial services and courses for the families of visiting foreign students and scholars?
We have arrived at the Information Conscious Society, in spite of our failure to systematically identify the most basic information needs of society. The ad-hoc methods of the entrepreneur have successfully identified many important areas of need. But the information industry, in spite of billions of dollars in revenues, has still only scratched the surface of what is to come, and the information profession can be a stimulus to the even more prosperous information society that is developing without sacrificing anyone along the way.
Another area of serious neglect is our failure to provide educational programs in information and library science. In the early days of computer science there were only mathematicians or electrical engineers who taught the subject. First there were graduate courses, then undergraduate programs. Here in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School, I taught a graduate course in information retrieval myself in the early days. Now there are undergraduate programs in computer science in hundreds of institutions. That is what the information profession should aspire to, and when and if it happens, a graduate degree will earn far more respect than it does today.
It seems to me that our profession should welcome with open arms — indeed regard it as the arrival of the millenium — that undergraduate programs in information and library science in the US are being proposed and implemented. Whatever the rationalization in the past, it is absurd to claim that more than four years is required to expose a student to the fundamentals of information science. I think it is significant that bachelor degree graduates from certain programs earn more as information technologists than do the graduates from one-year master’s programs elsewhere. Yes, a B.S. graduate in information studies may find himself doing cataloging or indexing at first. But is this any different than the filtrations, titrations and viscosity measurements I did as a B.S. chemist?
The Right to Know
Finally there is the question of the Right To Know — well illustrated by the history of the right-to-know movement right here in my home city of Philadelphia. In 1970 the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PHILAPOSH), a union-sponsored group, and Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group (HRG) petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a regulation to require employers to inform employees about the hazardous substances in the workplace.
The right-to-know remained a matter of unexercised bureaucratic discretion, however, until 1979, when a group of Philadelphia residents organized the Bridesburg Civic Council to improve the quality of the air in their heavily industrialized community. The Council organized community meetings to inform citizens of the possible connection between pollution and public health. The cancer death-rate in Bridesburg was twice that for the US as a whole.
A strong labor-environment-community coalition managed to overcome the opposition to right-to-know that was led by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. City Council hearings in October 1980 attracted hundreds of citizens, many of whom testified to the tragedies they suffered from exposure to toxic chemicals. The Philadelphia Right-to-Know Ordinance was enacted on January 22, 1981; its impact was national in scope. Approximately 18 states and 30 local communities have now enacted similar laws. Apparently the passage of so many local laws has forced the federal government to sit up and take notice. Last fall, OSHA issued its own form of right-to-know regulations, although in a weaker and more limited form than most local and state laws.
I think most of us are optimistic about the future. The future holds a great deal of excitement and fascination for all of us. I suggest that in the area of fundamental understanding of the basic laws of information science we have not progressed as far as we had expected since I entered this field about 25 years ago. It's time Information Scientists ventured beyond their small bit of turf into broader fields like the Right To Know, for example, where their professional skills could surely be of the greatest help in community projects.