Thursday, April 10, 2008

Innovative Ideas Forum on Mobile Internet and Archives

The third annual Innovative Ideas Forum started at the National Library of Australia in Canberra this morning. This is a one day event for librarians and other information professionals. There is almost a full house in the NLA theatre. It is very pleasant to be able to just sit here and let someone else do the organizing, after last week's Open 2020 Summit.

The proceedings are being recorded and will be podcast by the NLA, along with copies of the speaker's slides next week.

The ideas forum is a curious blend of the old and the new.
Demetrius of Phaleron, librarian at the ancient Great Library at Alexandria, would have felt at home at the NLA; it looks like a temple for books. If you look closely, some of what was on paper, such as catalogs and signs, have been replaced with electronic screens. But the operation and feeling remains the same. No doubt Demetrius would have attended forums on "papyrus 2.0". ;-)

The event was opened by Professor Gerard Goggin on Internet and Mobile Phone. He described broadband as a "totem" for the new government and asked what it might be used for and the role of wireless. Roger Clarke got a mention in recording the history of the Internet. Gerrard pointed out that scientists figured prominently, but activists should be mentioned. My recollection from around the early 1990s is that we deliberately clothed any social activism of the Internet in scientific language to make it politically palatable. Having, for example, someone who had been jailed for their political activism did not seem a good way to get the government onside.

Professor Goggin mentioned several Internet historians and activists. But he did not mention Carl Malamud's "
Exploring the Internet : A Technical Travelogue" (1992), which was about trip around the world visiting Internet pioneers, including those in Australia. This book has a large effect on me. Much of what is advocated has happened. Some of open access to documents may be about to happen.

Professor Goggin asks for histories of how and when the Internet developed in different parts of the world. However, he proposes to approach this from that of the key figures involved. The problem with this is that the people saying things publicly in traditional forums were not necessarily the people actually key to the process. Many of the key strategists were not public figures, relying on others to put the message out. Also the technology was used, so that the work was done by loose online groups which did not necessarily have leaders or formal structure. Those involved in this process may not necessarily know who did what.

This distributed approach still applies to Internet development. As an example, a few weeks ago I was part of a process to tell the government that it was not a good idea to give each school child a laptop. Within 24 hours, a cabinet minister said this to the media. It is not clear who said what to who and for this form of political communication to work, the lines of communication need to remain unclear.

It was not clear in the 1990s that "the Internet" would be a success and their were many alternatives which were proposed, failed and forgotten. It is very much the case with the Internet and the web that the victors have written the history. The other forgotten histories are buried in electronic archives, yet to be dug up by Internet archaeologists.

Professor Goggin pointed out that exciting new developments in the use of mobile phones in developing nations do not get considered. He also said that exactly what would be done with broadband on mobiles in Australia was not yet clear.

The commons approach then got a mention (of which Creative Commons is an example). He argued that the commons approach to mobiles has not been explored. This is relevant to broadband development in Australia, as the Australian Government recently cancelled the Opel contract to build a wireless broadband network in regional Australia. The government has no viable strategy to replace that network. A commons approach may help solve a looming political problem for the government. The opposition could get political traction around the perception that regional Australia is missing out on broadband access.

At question time I asked if historians needed to adopt analytical techniques to discover the history of the Internet. I suggested reading what people wrote in old fashioned paper books is not the way to do it. Also reading Wired magazine is not the way to do it (described by my technical colleagues as "The Dolly magazine of the computer industry"). The Internet Archive and others have kept records which can be analyzed to see who said what first. Professor Goggin replied that both approaches were needed. He was working on an analytical analysis of how Australian youth use mobiles, but it was also important to look at what historians say about topic.

Next there was Kris Carpenter Negulescu from the Internet Archive. She started off pointing out that the archive has more than just copies of old web pages, with books, music and video. Alos the use of the archive for research was emphasized, with "content as infrastructure" and "examination of primary data". She mentioned challenge with archives linking together with APIs. One aspect of interest was the risk of patent which risk the use of common approaches, such as a US company patenting the us of a thumbnail of a web page next to a reference to it. As an expert witness I have used the Internet Archive to check the prior art for such patents.

One interesting development was the use of Zotero in place of End Notes to keep research references. Mellon is funding an extension to this to allow a social network of researchers to exchange their references in a closed group or publicly.

Also it is interesting that data can in the archives can have analysis. An example Kris gave was of the use of the term "Cube Farm" to refer to an open plan office with low partitions. In passing she mentioned that Herman Miller was horrified that his idea of a more comfortable more flexible office layout turned into the confined cube farm.

Kris pointed out that the trend in research funding in the USA was to require the researchers to plan for sustaining the results of their work beyond the end of the funding. In Australia there has been some limited discussion of doing this, with researchers having to put their data in an institutional repository and pay for its upkeep.

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