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What problem is solved by greater speed? Whose problem is it?

My title paraphrases a question posed by the sociologist Neil Postman: “what problem does this technology solve, and whose problem is it?” Greater speed is a goal of much technology, so my query is an offshoot of Postman’s. I think the speed problem is one that is bedeviling librarians today, and it is in the library context that I take it up.

There is no doubt that in the so–called advanced countries many library activities are faster paced than they were a generation ago. Computerization has provided rapid access to library collections and to the contents of distant databases. Circulation routines no longer require handwritten charge cards and manual filing of those cards. OCLC gives immediate catalog copy for materials that used to require hours of solitary cogitation by each library’s catalogers. Outside the advanced countries, where computer use is still limited by obstacles of cost and infrastructure, these high speed operations are planned, proposed, sought after. I think a study of library literature in any country will show a high proportion of content dealing with actual or wished for progress (speed) that computers can or could bring.

Communication speed has been increased to allow nearly instantaneous exchanges of e–mail messages and faxed documents. The speed of travel allows librarians, and others, to gather in remote places for business meetings and conferences. Those who have access to speed in all these manifestations seem always to want more of it; those who lack it want to get into the picture. Advertising of numerous products — from automobiles to modems — emphasises how fast they work.

What problems are solved by greater speed? Are they in any case the key problems of a society (war, poverty, oppression, environmental decay, crime, poor education, etc.)? In the library world, are the problems we solve related to our basic concerns (informing the decision making of our patrons, optimizing service to researchers, providing socially beneficial recreation, etc.)? I suggest that the answer to both of those questions is negative. Improvements in the areas cited, in the societal or library context, seem to come from deeper roots, such as the power of thoughtful persons — individuals or groups — who set out to do things better.

Speed is, after all, an enemy of thought. As I write this essay I am aware of the ease of correcting it, thanks to the delete and backspace functions on my keyboard. So I type quickly, indifferent to mistakes, not really clarifying my ideas since I know I can patch and move sentences later. In my early life, the pre–wordprocessor age, I would have typed slowly, watching for mistakes,shaping sentences and paragraphs carefully to avoid having to do them over. I probably would have drafted the whole piece in pencil before going to the typewriter. Is today’s quicker result an improvement over what would have emerged from the slower process of the past? If not, what problem is solved by this computer and all its expensive programs?

Until the development of railroads, overland travel times remained fixed for centuries. Nobody found a way to make a horse run faster. Henri Braudel, in The Mediterranean, tabulated some average travel times between Venice and other European points during 16th century: to Constantinople 37 days, to London 27 days, to Alexandria 65 days, etc. “News, a luxury commodity, was worth more than its weight in gold,” says Braudel, referring to the prices charged by couriers. It follows that news, or any communication, was carefully thought out before it was dispatched. With high–speed communication, news is cheap, and messages are hurtled about. Some kinds of messages — I am thinking of the entertainment media — are worse than thoughtless, and may well be antisocial.

Sea travel became quicker with steamships, but at their peak such vessels needed a week to cross the Atlantic. In other words a person who hurried from Boston to Paris kept on hurrying for seven days. In Henry James’ The Ambassadors there are some wonderful examples. Strether hurries to Paris to save Chad from what was perceived as a life corrupted; when he fails to act Chad’s sister hurries from Boston to save Chad and Strether. As they hurry, they have days and days to think of what they will do and say on arrival. Today the whole event would be compressed into 24 hours of j et lag — but the problem, solved by slow dissolution in the book, would hardly be taken care of any better.

I wish I could see evidence that European and American libraries are doing better now what they need to to, better than they were doing before the speed demon assailed them. Some problems are being solved, it is true; quicker access to collections or at least to parts of collections, and quicker transaction times. But these are essentially cosmetic matters. The problems they solve are internal to the library: less money needed for staff, less time needed in record keeping. But what is found in the collections and what use is made of the findings? And what is not found, because the computer — or the way we have used it — has obscured some of what is there? Is catalog copy derived from a centralized database more useful to patrons than manual cataloging copy made at home? Do we give better information service now, with our quick–answer monitors, than we did when reference librarians studied their sources and knew everything about them?

Third World librarians may aspire to technology and its speed, just as Americans and Europeans aspire to greater and greater speed. As we work along that axis, we are all at risk of losing sight of our true problems, and solving some other ones. We can’t make a horse run faster, and we can’t make ourselves think faster. At the end of The Ambassadors (if you haven’t read it I won’t spoil it for you by telling) Strether, returning to Boston, makes one of the most intriguing decisions in all literature. He thinks long and slowly about it, in effect living through the whole experience of the novel again. He finds the perfect solution, to his real problem, in his own terms. Could he have done it, I wonder, with a laptop on the Concorde?

©1995 Guy A. Marco.



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