Open, Sesame*

The NPR radio program On the Media had an interesting story last week. It was about neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell’s article in Slate.com concerning alleged negative effects of technology on our brains and behavior. Bell says that these popular media reports are based mostly on hearsay rather than on evidence from actual research. He thinks that it is a bad idea to reach conclusions about this issue based on anecdotal or scant information.

Pardon my “I told you so” attitude, but Bell does underscore the message I harp on in my February 16 and January 5 posts. Still, I don’t agree with his more general conclusion, that technology has negligible effects on our lives. Of course, Bell doesn’t say exactly that. He is talking about demonstrable effects of technology (defined as video game and Internet use) on our neurons and behav-ior. Besides, Bell’s conclusion would not apply if we had research questions about possible effects of technology from sociological, political, cultural or economic perspectives.

Speaking of sociological impacts of technology, I want to recount a naturalistic participant-observer field study I accidentally conducted on this very topic! Well…okay, I admit this wasn’t exactly field research. It is just a story I offer because I think it is interesting and fairly revealing.

Last month while in San Francisco I visited the Internet Archive. I wanted to see the Espresso Book Machine they had there, one of I think only nine in existence. I had watched the video of this amazing contraption, but wanted to see, hear, smell, and feel it in real, four-dimensional space/time.

Arriving at the Internet Archive’s Funston Street location, my friend and I found the main entrance of the neoclassical building inaccessible due to renovation. Around the side of the building we saw an art deco brass door propped slightly open at the bottom of a set of steps. To the left was a glass-enclosed annex with the large sign, “READING ROOM.” My immediate hunch was that this was a converted Christian Science Reading Room. But—and this is part of my participant-observation study—I noticed in myself a willingness to suspend quick interpretations of sign(al)s like this. “The Internet Archive is about reading. That could well be it’s own logo, ” I thought.

As my friend and I approached the entrance we noticed the gold-lettered greeting centered on the glass door: “ALL ARE WELCOME.” Hmmm. Christian Science and the Internet Archive do share things in common: They are both movements inspired by prophecy, the former from divine sources, the latter from secular, if more evangelistic, ones. And both are committed to open access to materials. So, I was perfectly willing to be open-minded about whose openness we were enjoying.

Walking in, we saw an unattended retail counter with two or three glass shelves displaying various books, none of which were by Mary Baker Eddy, I noted. Behind the counter were several messy stacks of papers. In an adjacent room we could see people sitting studiously at workstations. Two small signs were posted outside the entrance to the room: “Visit OpenLibrary.org” and “Please Wipe Your Feet.” We could feel the openness virtually expanding as we stood there. We wiped our feet and walked in. A person who I believed to be an Open Library patron stood up, greeted us, and asked what we wanted. His body language, as well as a closer look at the workstations, told us that we had overstepped some very invisible boundary.

Damn! We had misread every cue! This was not an open library. It was a digitization project work room, one that was—how shall I say—PRIVATE. RESTRICTED. EXCLUSIVE. I guessed that our obligatory greeter was a shift supervisor. He was not particularly skilled in the niceties of public relations, although, to be fair, he was probably distracted by a deadline. I apologized for our truly ignorant intrusion and explained that I had come to see the Espresso Book Machine. He said he had never heard of it and was unable to guide us to any further information about it.

Leaving the Reading Room, we saw a couple of people exiting the door we had passed by. So, we gave that entrance a try. Stepping in, we were again in a common production area of some sort. Fortunately, a person standing inside the door was quite helpful, once I explained my quest—to observe the Espresso Book Machine at work.

“Oh, I’m sorry. That machine isn’t available for public viewing. It isn’t in operation. Come to think of it, it never did work right. I mean, after being serviced it would run for maybe four hours and break down again. And it had problems trimming the books right. See, here’s one.” He picked up a paperback nearby and showed us where the delirious machine had gnawed into the body of the text. “So we have it stored away. It was machine number 3 [or 4 maybe he said ].” I resisted the temptation to ask whether, during its shutdown sequence, the machine began humming “Bicycle Built for Two.” Nor was I so insensitive as to ask how much they paid for the thing.

Our host also recounted one of the missions of the Internet Archive. “Our founder has studied how expensive libraries are to operate. Such a large physical inventory to maintain and so laborious. But, it is possible to provide open access to books much more cheaply in an on-demand mode. Books can be delivered just to those who need them when they need them.” He went on to describe his institution’s ambitious project to catalog the whereabouts and formats of all available electronic books.

As our conversation drew to a close, he handed us each a small souvenir Archive-published, copyright-free paperback. Mine was Edward Lear’s 1889 Nonsense Drolleries: The Owl & The Pussy-Cat and The Duck & The Kangaroo. We thanked him for his graciousness and left.

This story, then, is about access to information, namely, my “seeking behavior” and how I eventually got my “information need” met (kind of). The story touches on other issues, some of great import, like the follies of automation and the possibility of library extinction; and on sticky policy issues, like the total cost of technology ownership and copyright confusion. It can also be viewed as a mini-allegory about drawing conclusions from evidence and the effects of our perceptual and conceptual biases (like gullibility). Literally, of course, the story is about the mundane idea of proper signage.

I am concerned, though, with how engagement with technology changes our social mores in everyday circumstances. How natural it has become for cell-phone users to deny the existence of other human beings standing just a couple of feet away. And how the Internet Archive has not felt pressed to acknowledge any body’s physical presence by maintaining a public entrance. Probably when the Archive’s building renovation is completed public physical access will improve, remedied by those pioneers of usability, architects. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that technology organizations ultimately take on the characteristics of the products they hawk. Access is free, open, and unfettered as long as you follow sanctioned protocols.

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* “Open, sesame” is reported to be the anglicized version of the Arabic “Open, simsim.” See Wikipedia’s entry on Ali Baba

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