Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Reading Tea Leaves

Based on conversations I've participated in, blog posts I've read, questions I've answered after presentations, worst fears that librarians have shared with me, many in our community fret about Google. They fret that Google will supplant libraries, librarians, reference, cataloging, the buildings...

As I've said often, I doubt it. Google has already changed all of the above (except maybe the buildings), and will continue to, but it's pretty fruitless to fret about change, and about "the future." I'm not a professional futurist, but during two day-long courses (as a prelude to the World Future Society conference) on the study of the future and on using foresight tools, I learned one of the fundamental tenets of "futuring" is that the future is actually plural. There are futures.

In my notes from one of the sessions, either Peter or Wendy said "When we learned history, we learned one past, so the tendency is to think there's one future." Not so...possible futures emerge from the trends, innovations, evolutions, and revolutions that are change. Futurists develop scenarios for a range of plausible futures that help decision makers prepare for a wider range of contingencies than planning for "the future" does.

Planning for "the future" can lead to big problems. If one future is decided upon, then all energy and activity and planning is focused on that scenario. What if it isn't right? In the 70s, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

Here's what I fret about. I fret that too many people in Libraryland are indulging in predicting the future instead of forecasting futures. And so I direct your attention to a recent article in Business2.0 called "Imagining the Google Future." It's an excellent example of creating scenarios, and the people asked to assist with this scenario-building included the futurist Ray Kurzweil (yes, that Kurzweil).

The four scenarios are:
- Google is the Media
- Google is the Internet
- Google is Dead
- Google is God

Each of these scenarios is described, supported by various publications and events, and given a timeline. That's how scenarios work. They're not (completely) wild-eyed imaginings and their roots are in current events and trends.

Right now, there's a good deal of talk and writing about Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 and what these presage for the future of Libraryland, if anything at all (depending if you're pro or con). It would be helpful and healthy, seems to me, to have some scenarios built around these memes that would help people understand the contingencies and contribute to the development of a preferred future.

Imagine the possible. Envision the preferred. Plan and implement. Forget the "Chicken Little" behaviour. The sky falling is only one scenario among many and I doubt it's anyone's preferred future.

OK, stepping off the soapbox....

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