Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Digitization’ Category

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:





Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Libraries vs. the Internet: Researching the Peloponnesian War, the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” Project, and a Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 26, 2007

This past June, I posted an entry (Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo) weighing in against the misconception that the Internet is equal to or will render obsolete the world’s great libraries. Soon after, I came across this recent paper: The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries (2007) by Thomas Mann, Ph.D (author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005).

Mann’s paper — prepared for AFSCME 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild — is a compelling 40-page examination of the roles of libraries, librarians, and cataloging, and of the place and present limits of the Internet. Beginning with the device of a student’s attempt to research the Peloponnesian War, Mann reflects on the nature of research, knowledge, and scholarly discourse vs. “quick fix” searches for isolated facts. His consideration of the visceral and associative nature of delving into open stack collections inspires one to set out in search of the nearest library. Vis-a-vis the Internet, one of Mann’s main points of concern is:

“The inadequacy of the open Internet alone for scholarly research – its inability to provide overviews of “the whole elephant”—i.e., not showing all relevant parts, not distinguishing important from tangential, not showing interconnections or relationships, not adequately allowing recognition of what cannot be specified.”

In all, Mann’s paper is an enticing challenge to all of us to return to libraries, to expand our knowledge, and to taste and enter the worlds of research, scholarship and discourse, whether as participants or occasional observers. Internet partisans sometimes prefer aphorisms and “getting it” to longer, well-reasoned arguments but anyone interested in seeing the internet fulfill its potential in the hosting, association, and democratization of knowledge would do well to at least skim the paper.

Turning the Pages

One of the best projects I have encountered on the Web to digitize, examine, and make accessible treasured books and manuscripts is the British Library’s Turning the Pages site. Turning the Pages includes magnificently reproduced rare books — their pages made “turnable” via Shockwave — with English-language transcriptions of their texts and, in some cases audio files of readings of the texts in their original languages. Still, the project presents the texts in isolation and without links or references to facilitate research or place them within the contexts of collections, background material, relevant scholarship, etc. — one of the pitfalls that Mann refers to in his monograph.

A Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

I first found Mann’s paper on Libraries and the Internet on wood s lot, a prodigious weblog of impeccably selected — and equally impeccably associated — photographs, paintings, and literary quotes. I truly recommend it … and thank its author for his occasional links to Hak Pak Sak!

Posted in Digitization, Internet, Libraries, Literature | 1 Comment »

More Balkan Lessons: Health Care Data and the Benefits of Dog-Eared Files and Messy Desks

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 19, 2007

One of the frustrations of working outside of the US on and off for much of my life is that Americans often react with irritation or hostility when I describe to them the benefits of “Big Government” in European social democracies. It seems beyond the comprehension of many Americans that Western European countries have actually developed and maintained powerhouse economies while also attending to an ethos of social responsibility and egalitarianism — to paraphrase the tone of Bush and Co.’s Iraq War rhetoric: How could cowardly, self-indulgent Europe surpass the world’s number-one democracy? Now, to their benefit and credit, Americans are beginning to wake up to the fact that they have cheated themselves and allowed themselves to be cheated, and that other nations have surpassed the US when it comes to taking care of their citizens. Michael Moore’s new film “Sicko” makes this point with Moore’s usual delightful bombast while the New York Times sums up the sorry state of affairs in this more somber editorial.

Health Care Chaos and the Democratization of Records

In a recent posting on the implications of the ever-narrowing gap between the US dollar and (!) the Bulgarian Lev, I described some facets of the economy and tone of post-communist Bulgaria and possible lessons to be learned from transformations and chaos in this small Balkan Republic over the last two decades, i.e. since the implosion of Communism. In the posting, however, I neglected to mention health care. Depending on which side of their country’s deepening gap between rich and poor Bulgarians fall, they have private or state insurance and visit expensive medical and dental clinics or are served by the country’s rank-and-file GPs and dedicated but overworked and ill-equipped public hospitals.

The single, but admittedly accidental, benefit of this unmanaged flux is that, for the moment at least, many Bulgarians have control of their own medical data, albeit without the adequate tools to administer them. Most Bulgarian doctors have neither the desire nor space to store records. Thus, their patients carry their own x-rays with them and pick-up and store their own blood-test and lab results. As a result, patients have a full set of printouts, film, and hands-scrawled charts with them most of the time — even if carried in dog-eared folders and stored on messy desk tops and in jumbled desk drawers. If they are interested and capable, and have sufficiently confrontational personalities, possession of such documents give them an inside track into understanding and maybe even managing their own conditions and treatment. Thus, once again, accidental circumstances in Bulgaria point to solutions for problems Americans face, in this case getting medical records out of the file cabinets and off the desks of doctors and, even if in duplicate, into the hands of the patients to whom they rightfully belong. The next step of course would be to set advanced information technology to work to support patients in setting data to work for their benefit and the potential benefit of others. The New York Times editorial linked to above underscored the urgency of this issue:

“Shockingly, despite our vaunted prowess in computers, software and the Internet, much of our health care system is still operating in the dark ages of paper records and handwritten scrawls. American primary care doctors lag years behind doctors in other advanced nations in adopting electronic medical records or prescribing medications electronically. This makes it harder to coordinate care, spot errors and adhere to standard clinical guidelines.”

Not Just the Province of Giants

Some days later, the Times reported that Google and Microsoft have entered into the medical information management fray. But, as I wrote following a meeting with Vendor Relations Management activists at the Oxford Internet Institute back in July, there are numerous opportunities for grass-roots information projects (in this case a proposed community-based project serving diabetics in the UK) that can turn us all into managers rather than victims of medical care. We needn’t wait for industry giants, even if well-willing, to do the job.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Digitization, Health Care, Identity, Infrastructure | Leave a Comment »

Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 19, 2007

The Moorish-Revival style facade of the fire-gutted former National and University Library building, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In a June 1 commentary, Doc Searls objected to the high annual user-fees ($500 and up) that American universities such as Stanford and Harvard charge outsiders to use their libraries. Doc cautioned: “The (inter)net is a bigger library than all … university libraries put together, and it’s not exclusive. This is a fact of life (or death) for libraries and those of us who continue to care deeply about them.”

The Poorly-Stocked Web

My own take is that while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees. What the exact cost models could or will be is part of a larger conversation on the infrastructure of the internet that Doc and I have kicked-off privately and will at some point bring online. It is also part of ongoing conversations on future models for the publishing industry and intellectual property laws.

Digitization of the contents of libraries, by the way, is a highly complex affair, especially when dealing with older books and with original, fragile archival materials. The goal is to reproduce such materials in a non-destructive manner, at a sufficiently high quality, and in a manner that is searchable. Indeed, the ability to search within and across documents is one of the ultimate benefits of digitalization and one of main promises of interconnected on-line libraries.

A War Against Archives

Just about the time when Doc was preparing his June 1 posting I was standing in front of the former National and University Library in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building – constructed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century soon after the transfer of control of Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire– originally served as Sarajevo’s town hall. The edifice is an archetypical example of so-called Moorish Revival architecture, a style that may have been propogated as a non-Ottoman but still (stereotypically-) oriental “national” style for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s newly-annexed Muslim-populated Balkan territories. (More on Moorish Revival architecture and contrived national identities and national styles on my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org later this summer).

In August of 1992, during the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, the National Library building was set ablaze. This resulted in the loss of more than two million books, periodicals, and archival documents. The attempted destruction of the library was part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the historical memory and cultural heritage of Muslim Bosnia, a correlate of the attempt to delegitimize the presence of, and ultimately physically eliminate, its inhabitants. Fortunately, many of the library’s rare manuscripts had been smuggled out of the library building and hidden elsewhere in Sarajevo in anticipation of the attack.

The internet has a long way to go as a home for irreplaceable historical archives and documents. Such primary sources form the basis for original research and for refreshing our understanding in many fields. The rarity and fragility of archival documents makes them worthy of digitization and web-based archiving and distribution. At the moment, archival materials are under-represented among the corpus of information in cyberspace. This causes them to slip out the ken of popular recognition as well as beyond the reach of specialists without the resources to travel to and work where they are stored. In the case of Sarajevo, a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the Balkans might have been saved in virtual form had the potentials of digitation and the web been available and utilized at the time. More recently, the Bush administration’s ill-considered war and occupation in Iraq was based on pathetically inadequate research and a total misunderstanding of the country, its history, and the peoples that comprise it. Indeed, much of the history of Iraq and its antecedents – as of much of the Mid-East, North Africa, and the Balkans – stills lays buried amongst the millions of pre-1923 Ottoman documents stored in the Turkish national archives in Istanbul and Ankara. This is all the more reason to ensure that, whatever the cost model, more of the world’s printed and written heritage is brought online and that until then we continue to turn to libraries and keep in mind that there are “far more things in heaven and earth” than are now contained on the internet.

(Digital Photo © Stephen Lewis, 2007)

Posted in Architecture, Commentary, Digitization, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Libraries | 8 Comments »