Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The ICT Revolution:
We live in the age of the internet. The digital age, where the
traditional boundaries between voice, text, image and data have blurred
and are on the verge of disappearing. The traditional view of writing as
the supreme means of communication has already for a century been
gradually displaced by the role of the image in transferring knowledge
and interconnecting generations… But that does not mean that the word
will be abolished or that the book will disappear. Rather, our children
will have many more options to choose from and an infinitely richer
cultural environment to live in.
Indeed we can see this today: Television is very pervasive, mobile
telephony is ubiquitous and never have more people been connected to the
new media. The internet is everywhere, and youth seem particularly adept
at navigating the new fads and fashions, even creating entire new worlds
in virtual reality in the realm of cyberspace. But never before in the
history of humanity have we had as many print newspapers, magazines and
books as we have today. And that is true in terms of titles or of
individual copies. So the two trends – electronic, wireless digital data
and old-fashioned print media – can grow hand in hand as it were.
But the explosion of technology that we have witnessed in the last
century is nothing compared to the explosion that is about to come in
this new century. This is truly the third global revolution that we are
living through. I believe that the new information age is transformative
on the scale of the two global revolutions of humanity: the agricultural
revolution that allowed the emergence of civilizations and the
industrial revolution that changed the relationship of worker to product
and brought about a major explosion of goods and services. The new
information and communication revolution will also bring about real
In addition, ICT technology is now moving from computer-centric to
communication-centric platforms (mobile phones and PDAs) which are much
more user friendly. With substantial expansion of broadband wireless,
the poor can move to communications-centric platforms immediately. That
is significant because massive connectivity is here: There are billions
of Mobile phones in the world, with over 400 million in China alone.
They can access the Internet, with its enormous positive impacts,
despite the variable quality of the information it provides. And
storage: is becoming easier and cheaper. Technology makes information
more portable, more searchable and more accessible. Imagine, one Ipod
can store millions of scientific articles. All in all, the density and
accessibility of information is increasing dramatically.
Scenarios for the future:
But how will we interact with all this material? Will be living in a
fast-paced world of disposable cultural artifacts, jumping from one
fashion to the next, dropping hula hoops and pet rocks for Rubik's cubes
and video games? Or will we still be able to relate to the more profound
aspects our cultural heritage and build on the cultural accumulation
that created this legacy?
I see before us two scenarios:
In one instance, we become nations of dilettantes, with short attention
spans and superficial acquaintance with a lot of things. Consumers of
technology as well as of goods and services, people who, thanks to the
internet, know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
Education has been confused with entertainment in the ever-intensifying
search for means to capture the fickle attention span of youngsters.
In that scenario, the libraries and museums of the world are abandoned
"antiques" of a bygone era, as people would rather sit in their homes
and see the cyber-image (no-doubt in virtual reality) of an object or
artifact, rather than see the real thing in a museum or evening its
country of origin, and books are there for those who wish to actually
plow through all the words rather than just "see the film version" or
enjoy an abstract on line.
But I do not believe that scenario. I believe in another scenario:
The enormous resources of the revolution in Information and
Communication Technologies (ICT) will be mobilized to make available to
future generations the most easily accessible and broadest coverage of
the accumulated wisdom of the ages. It will be a select part of the vast
array of information available to all. The new resources will be
mediated by the libraries and museums and other institutions of cultural
conservation and expression.
Contrary to the general view that the internet based future of
ICT-driven wonders will see the end of the book as we know it, and that
there will be no libraries in the future, I believe that libraries and
museums in the future will remain as essential mediators of the
accumulated cultural heritage of humanity. They will enable new
generations to "read" it, although the act of reading will be somewhat
different than it is today.
New ways of presenting material, new ways of reading:
This enormous richness of material will require different ways of
organization and presentation and will match new ways of reading that
will have developed in the population. We already see some of the early
examples of these transformations.
For example, we increasingly present information differently. We do not
write long treatises. We write a home page and hyperlink words that each
lead to other pages and other materials. Publishing materials
increasingly combines picture, sound and movement in addition to text
Also, the way we prepare material has changed. Wikipedia showed how
thousands of people from all over the world could collaborate to produce
an enormous collective work that would have been impossible without the
new ICT technology. Likewise, a lot of individuals can now publish
directly on the net without the mediation of traditional publishers or
producers by posting directly to the web. The success of such sites as
Utube and facebook are early precursors of an important trend.
Finally, the new search engines from Alta-Vista to Google have shown how
the vast amounts of information on the net could be indexed and
retrieved in ways that can be incredibly efficient.
But the Internet is like the street. Anyone can put anything in the web.
Only an expert can tell the difference between good quality information
and bad. And with the enormous increase in information that is being
added every day, the need for means to mediate the organization of this
vast information into a usable structure becomes acute. It is here that
the libraries of the future come in.
Already a century ago a poet remarked
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric...
--Edna St. Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry
We devoted ourselves to building that loom. Libraries will continue to
build that loom in the new century using the new technologies just as
fast as the new technologies are becoming available. For in the end, it
is our vocation. How to sift and organize data so that it becomes
information, how to link and interpret it so that we gain knowledge,
which hopefully, when refined in the crucible of experience, with
insight and reflection, may lead us to wisdom. The wisdom to create that
better world to which we are all committed.
Remembering the poor:
So far, we have been talking about the high-end of users on this planet.
We have not addressed how the new technologies will be able to reach the
poorer parts of the world. And reach they will, as the inexorable march
of technology and economic development make their way. Within and
between societies these technologies will tend to favor the rich, the
powerful, the educated and the nimble. Thus they have the potential to
aggravate the digital divide and increase the gap between the rich and
But the new technologies also hold the potential to enable the poorer
people in the south to "leapfrog" the development patterns experienced
in the north. While it is not a silver bullet, connecting all the
schools is both desirable and feasible. Although it would not replace
conventional schooling, it would revolutionize the possibilities
available to both teachers and students. Thoughtfully deployed, the new
technologies can strengthen deprived communities and empower the poor.
For example, Vietnam is using digital libraries for rural development.
These become hubs of villages turning them into knowledge communities,
each having a multimedia computer, printers, camera and 200 digitized
But the costs of the hardware and of proprietary software to the south
are enormous. Brazil was spending more on licensing proprietary software
than it does on fighting hunger, so now it is moving to open source
systems. That raises the questions of standards and interoperability.
Standards and Interoperability:
The full impact of the ICT revolution will not be fully realized until
inter-operability is achieved. Consider, for example, the goal of "50 by
15" to connect 50% of the world by 2015.
This kind of goal cannot be achieved without setting standards that will
Standards drive down barrier to entry, and more entrants means better
products. Many would prefer open industry standards rather than
proprietary solutions. However, even proprietary systems have seeded the
landscape with competitors and innovators.
Who sets the standards? Those who have that power often abuse it for
national or commercial reasons, at the expense of the consumer, the
These are complex issues, but central to our theme. I believe that even
if standards should be market driven, governments have to provide
frameworks for anti-trust and for public goods. Standards should also
avoid the stultifying effect of blocking new technologies. What if there
is a new and better music compression technology than MP3 ?
Future Libraries and the management of our heritage:
The digital libraries of tomorrow have the potential of archiving an
enormous amount of data. Not only will books be available in digital
formats, but films, images, video, music and much more. We have a dual
responsibility to record and protect our heritage, including the
folklore and traditional customs and oral traditions, and to make it
available to all.
This will not be the work of one institution. Collaboration and exchange
is essential, but will it be on open source formats? How will we deal
with technical and physical obsolescence of the material and the
formats? Will we keep rerecording this enormous material every few
Information and ideas are central for the development of humanity. But
there are intermediaries between authors and readers: Libraries have a
central role to play. Large digital collections of text, images, voice,
music and video open amazing possibilities. Hypertext links, even fluid
hyperwords, object repositories, and new search engines and gateways
that add coherence and credibility. We can find origins, or do
associative semantic searching, all unthinkable in the non-digital
Specialized collections can add enormous impact. The
Brazil-Chile-Argentina initiative of digitizing their journals made
available specialized literature on health and agriculture.
In short, the library of the future will not just digitize the old books
and articles. It will give birth to the new, so much of which resides in
the links between the old knowledge. It will give a home to materials
that are born digital! The library of the future will truly be the place
to find the lasting and the lost.
It will keep pace with the public. The form of consultation and reading
will be different, but the book will remain as well as the new
electronic media. Some things will be consulted in one way, others in
other ways. Skeptics who believe in the imminent demise of the book
should be reminded as to how ICT was to produce the paperless office.
Today we use more paper with more technology than ever before.
Finally: A call for new thinking:
More useable real-time data than ever before is now available to the
average person, and this is going to increase in both quantity and
quality. For example Google earth, is soon going to come to 30 cm
resolution. Can we bring into the public domain information and data
that can be used for public purpose, but respecting the privacy of
individuals? Help establish baselines for understanding our enormously
To tackle these questions we will need new ways of thinking,
trans-disciplinary research, and a great deal of imagination. Thinking
of the multiplicative effect of the new technologies and how they impact
on the environment, and how the very nature of human interaction in our
societies will change remains a daunting and very exciting challenge.
New ways of thinking will help us ensure that the emerging world of the
knowledge based society and the technology driven economy, will open
avenues for talented people everywhere to harness the new knowledge to
improve their well-being in a sustainable fashion.
We need a world where the values of science are celebrated: free
inquiry, free speech and a healthy skepticism, all coupled with a sense
of wonder, a respect for truth and an ability to reason.
A world where fairness and cooperation are promoted, innovators are
rewarded and society benefits from their innovations as it celebrates
diversity and pluralism.
A world where access to knowledge is a fundamental right and the sharing
of knowledge is a fundamental duty.
It can be done, it must be done, and it will be done.
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