Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Striving Towards Redundancy

Every industry should strive to render itself redundant & unneeded.

Corollary: it is a sign of decadence when an industry exists merely to further itself.

I've thought this for awhile, but I'm writing about it because I recently stumbled across the PhoneGap Beliefs, Goals, & Philosophy, which features this gem:

The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.

PhoneGap is a web application framework meant to fill the "gap" between native applications, which have strong access to device APIs such as the camera & hard disk storage, & web applications that have less robust support. Thus when PhoneGap ceases to exist it will be because one can build a perfectly functional native application with web technologies.

Librarianship & Its Guardians

The ultimate purposes of librarianship should be to cease to exist. What would this look like? Knowledge sharing & access are distributed across the community. There is no need to select books & store them, to maintain public computers & to teach computing classes, because the public collectively takes on these tasks. There may be a library facility—though it isn't called a library anymore—to house materials, but ultimately the community maintains & uses the resources without needing specialists to assist them.

Does that sound utopian or simply impossible? That's our job security, & it's not a good thing.

I think there are many in librarianship who have lost their way, who strive to maintain the profession over its goals. They clamor about the innate value of certain forms (books, name the most prominent & at-risk ones) without thinking about the purposes of those forms & how they might otherwise be fulfilled.

Then again, I see other signs that librarians are striving towards redundancy. Two fairly recent (though despite my grandiose pronouncements, I'm new to librarianship so I can't claim to know if these are current fads or centuries-old staples) developments are the emphasis on user experience & the move to creation over curation. In user experience for instance, one seeks to reduce friction, not just of navigating web sites, but in every interaction. Then there are some who believe that finding information should be hard, who pour their efforts into developing the most hideous federated search contraptions, contraptions that spew out more results than any dozen human minds could process; a librarian's dream & a user's nightmare. But now there are counterpoints, slowly compiling data & test results, slowly tossing aside the rubble to make the diamonds more visible.

Elsewhere, we see warning signs of decadent industries everywhere. Record labels have largely ceased to be necessary; Bandcamp will annihilate them because musicians, producers, & discovery engines are all that is needed. There's little room for business executives in there. & perhaps closer to home, there are the great publishing monoliths, who are also going to die out but only after trying to force outmoded business models down the consumers' throats. TV, too, will die. Why should I buy cable when I have the web? & why does my ISP try to sell me a landline? When you begin to think of just how many companies (AOL is a shining example) rely on Cro-Magnon consumer behaviors, libraries look quite safe.

Closing Mantra

Disintermediation is the end goal, not an obstacle. When everyone has access to the information & skills of librarianship there will be no need for librarians.


  1. 1) I totally agree on striving toward redundancy, and on the idea that there's something decadent and wrong about maintaining oneself simply to maintain oneself.

    2) About publishing -- I'm not sure I agree. I've been spending a lot of time in the penumbra of publishing this past year, of course, and there are definitely a lot of outmoded and broken things, but...

    OK, so I'm not sure exactly what you're proposing as the alternative to publishing, so this line of thought may or may not apply to you. But I hear a lot of people who say that the publishing industry is unnecessary now that we have self-publishing and self-pub discovery tools and so forth. And this just isn't true.

    The industry isn't necessary *for some people* -- people who can not only write, but who have the skills and inclination to manage the business and marketing and networking end of things. (And the technology end of things, though this becomes less important as end-user-friendly tech becomes more available.) Lots of writers have neither the skills nor the inclination to do that, though. Lots of writers have pretty strong negative reactions to doing those things, or clearly don't understand how they work, or both. And even writers who *can* do those things may not necessarily *want* to, because it takes time away from writing. They want a world with division of labor, where the writers can write and someone else can produce and edit and market and so forth.

    Now maybe in the future, we don't bundle those functions in one entity and call them "publishers". Maybe authors subcontract them all separately. Maybe their agents do. Maybe they bundle themselves in some different groupings. Maybe Amazon does it as part of a premium CreateSpace package. I don't know. But we do have something performing those functions; it isn't all a direct-from-author-to-consumer self-publishing show. For some, yes, but for many, no.

  2. Point well taken. I didn't make this explicit, but I was basically thinking of your final paragraph: all the functions that publishers serve will still be performed, but in a more decentralized form that doesn't necessitate massive corporations to coordinate them. Some of the emerging Open Access models which distribute peer review are the current proof-of-concept, but of course these would need to be adjusted to other markets like fiction (where you'll probably have to pay an editor in actual dollars, not scholarly prestige).