Futurespeak: A Preface to Top Technology Trends in Libraries

The ultimate folly of looking toward the future is to believe that anyone can predict the future. While near-term prognostications can be fairly accurate (if broad based), the long-term future can be elusive. But more to the point, there are two main reasons why thinking that the future can be predicted is problematic. First, the notion of prediction confuses the point of looking toward the future for our purposes. "Prediction" suggests a high degree of specificity and accuracy as if to imply that one can control the future or even know the future. The image of crystal balls and incantations to an oracle come to mind. More importantly, the use of the article "the" in conjunction with the word "future" connotes a singular scenario in which, if the details are correct, the predictor can pinpoint exactly what future will exist, as if there could be just one future.

It is much more productive in thinking about the future to explore multiple possible scenarios that reflect a variety of outcomes and interdependencies, none of which may come to pass. Approaching the process in this way also provides an avenue for contingencies in planning and acknowledges that everyone is a participant in making the future (i.e., decisions made today have implications for tomorrow). Peter Bishop warns about assumptions when thinking about the future and offers several questions to assist in identifying assumptions and in creating a framework for thinking like a futurist. [1] Some of these questions can inform this discussion of technology trends in libraries. For example, "Which is the most important characteristic for a good forecast? a. Accuracy. b. Precision. c. Utility. d. Clarity." Bishop notes, "The best long-term forecasts are not necessarily accurate or precise, but useful to decision makers." He also suggests that the most useful type of future scenario is one that includes the most-probable, other plausible, and the preferred options and that the most serious cause for forecasting errors is not a lack of information or external events, but the forecaster's own assumptions. And perhaps most germane to this discussion would be his insistence that technology is but one factor influencing the long-term future.

Certainly, one large influential factor would be one's relative level of positivism or negativity in attitude. If one is relatively pessimistic, one may tend toward doomsday approaches to the future. Or if one leans toward optimism, one may propose utopian ideas. Sharpe and Bryant provide a balanced view for life in general. "Neither cynical pessimism nor blind optimism form the healthiest disposition. We need a mixture: enough positive outlook for hope, and enough realism to discern what lies in our control and what lies out of it." [2]

The LITA Board established a task force to bring a variety of LITA Leaders together to discuss top technology trends in libraries. In addition to some preliminary online discussions, this group had its first face-to-face caucus in Philadelphia at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. Charged with developing some list of technologies that would be relevant for libraries in the near-term future, we struggled to identify what kind of a list this would be, what constitutes a technology, what categories of attention would be useful (e.g., ignore, keep an eye on, plan for, budget, too late), and how could we give this effort utility across a wide range of library settings.

Despite many attempts to steer the discussion back to specific technologies in the market, soon to be, or likely in a few years, we found ourselves focusing increasingly on the management of technology as an important part of the process. We visited emerging technologies, submerging technologies, staffing and training issues, budgetary prospects, sources of information and information overload, levels of need, etc. There is a temptation to want a simple list of "things I need in my library." While there may be some of that in the output of this group, there will also be suggestions for how to think about and plan for possible library and technology futures.

Another temptation looming on the horizon is for us to think only about technologies in libraries. There are, and will be, many technologies that will influence the lives of library users and therefore have indirect impact on libraries (e.g., changes in air and ground transportation). Frederik Pohl describes some "disappearing," or rather transforming or converging, technologies he anticipates: use of dirigibles to eclipse large, sprawling airports; convergence of computers, televisions, and wall art; and reduction in hospital physical plants because of microsurgical remote manipulators. [3] What follows is a work in progress emanating from intensive professional deliberations. Enjoy!

--Tom Wilson

[1] Bishop, Peter. (1998, June-July). Thinking Like a Futurist. The Futurist. 32(5):39-42.

[2] Sharpe, Kevin & Bryant, Rebecca. (1998). Living with Pessimism and Optimism. Science & Spirit. 9(4):8-9.

[3] Pohl, Frederik. (1999, February). Disappearing Technologies: The Uses of Futuribles. The Futurist. 33(2):30-35.

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