The pipe gets smaller

Hello gang, I’m back from sunny London! It’s true, it was sunny — the weather was an amazing 11°C. Which according to my calculations (°C x 9/5 + 32 – thought + ignorance = °F + 37°) meant it was at least 88°F.  The tulips were in bloom and the sunset on the Thames was so beautiful that I hardly noticed the garbage scows.  I discovered Soho for the first time, completely missed the Camden blaze (even though I wandered all over Camden) and got a chance to see technology failure at it’s greatest.

Before I left, I decided that one of the things I would do is really test the limits of the iPod Touch.  Since it’s a wireless device I though (oh how wrongly) that I should be able to take it over there, wander around the city and when I got lost stop at a coffee shop, pub, etc. get a drink fire up the internet and find my way.  HA HAHA AHAHHAHA AHA.  There is no free wireless in London.  Apart from a few hotel lobbies, everything is either locked down or T-Mobile and BT for pay wireless.  In retrospect I should have just coughed up the $12 (£6) for an hour’s worth of service.  But that wasn’t part of my plan!  I mean come on, I only pay $30 for a MONTH of service here there was no way I was going to break down and pay $12 for an hour just so I could get directions.  There had to be free wi-fi SOMEWHERE but I never found it.

In the most comical example, I got off the Arsenal tube station in search of the Tollington Arms which is a pub I was supposed to meet up with some friends at the next day.  Look at that map.  See how close the Tollington is?  should be easy to find, especially with a wi-fi device, right?  Wrong.  I walked down Gillespie road and took a left; 180° the wrong way.  I quickly realized I was off.  So I stopped at The King’s Head (there on Blackstock lane — no internet) and got a pint (£3) and asked directions.  He gave good directions but I must have missed a turn (how?  I’m walking!) and I ended up just wandering down the Seven Sister’s road until I got to the Prince Edward.  Now I’m getting frustrated.  But the owner (publican is what they call them in England) was very kind and pointed me in the right direction.  I finally ended up at the Tollington but I had walked 5 miles to go 100 yards.  And the worst part was that since I had no map, and since my experience of city layouts is mostly Tacoma, I assumed that the path I traveled had 90° right turns and that I had been traveling in a straight line.  It wasn’t until just now, when I looked at a map of the larger area that I saw the path I had traveled.  Pretty embarrassing, but indicative of several “technology failures” none of which have to do with technology.

First, here is not there.  Compared to England, we have free wi-fi everywhere here in America.  Compared to America they have cheap and readily available wireless cellphone service everywhere.  People don’t bring their laptops everywhere, and why should they?  Their phones do everything; phone, e-mail, messaging, simple word processing, web browser, and in the very near future GPS navigation in their cell phones.  We have wi-fi everywhere here because it’s a new thing to most of us while England is already off doing other stuff.  Here is not there.

Second, technology rarely solves problems.  People solve problems, using technology, the technology itself solves nothing.  In fact, technology causes more problems that it solves when you try to use it to solve a human behavior problem.

Finally, the corporations that run the networks are already wise to us: they know we need bandwidth, they know we need information, and by now they know how much they can charge us for access to that source of information.  If the UK is an example of what the future holds for technology with their GSM networks and GPS phones they are probably the harbinger of the business model for information access.  And that business model is pay-per-minute/per-megabyte.  Already we are seeing some of the first shots fired across the bow for America.  Comcast today revealed that they “purposely slow(s) down some traffic on its network, including some music and movie downloads.”   Metered bandwidth, metered service, more discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots.

This highlights the importance for libraries to be the place where information can flow freely.  For example, we should be the place that stores digital movies and allows a professor, by selecting a title in the catalog, to show a film to her class.  Or the place where a student can download a film onto his/her mobile device and on and on and on.  The library should be the Information Technology center of the University.  If not, then the corporate model will take over and metered service, lockdowns, blackouts, and the like will be the norm for our students.

Chew on that until tomorrow!


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