27 May 2008

Thing 2: Predicting the Future

Want to win friends and influence people? Start telling them what life will be like for them in five, ten, or twenty years. It's a proven path to success, since the power to predict the future has made people popular for thousands of years. Of course, you don't have to actually know what's in store; all that's necessary is (a) a strong core belief that you can see into the unknown, and (b) the charisma to convince others that you can.

Whether you're reading the entrails of ritually slaughtered animals, gazing into a crystal ball, or running economics statistics, it helps that people have remarkably limited memories. Like a dog who hears only the words "treat" or "walk," those in the audience of a soothsayer remember what they want to know and forget the rest. And then they can pretend that they control the future, not you. This is why (I learned while listening to a recent podcast from the BBC radio show "In Our Time," about the ancient library of Nineveh) kings used to rely on priests and gods. The king needed to make decisions, but he was supposed to be infallible and all-knowing. Consulting a priest (who was supposed to have a direct line into divine will) was a way to seek advice without compromising his status.

What does all this have to do with Web 2.0? Well, I'm on Thing 2 of the Minnesota libraries "23 Things on a Stick" program, and Thing 2 involves immersing yourself in modern soothsaying. Specifically, I watched a video recorded by Stephen Abram (who holds the title of vice-president of innovation at Sirsi-Dynix, in case you were wondering) in Melbourne, Australia, last August, and read a blog by John Blyberg (head of technology and digital initiatives at Darien Library in Connecticut). Both were very enthusiastic about Web 2.0 and what it will bring to libraries. And both were quite certain that the operative auxiliary verb was "will," not "might" or "should."

I have nothing against either of these gentlemen; in fact, I rather liked them. And I appreciated Blyberg's concise definition of Library 2.0: a way to make libraries relevant. But I was a journalist just long enough to be skeptical of anyone who seems to be selling something invisible. (Like Mr. Weasley in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I want to see what agent is creating the magic.) Just because we want interactivity and relevance — nice nouns, but expensive pets — to be the future does not make them the future.

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