Making room for disruptive and emergent technologies

Hugh Blackmer
Science Librarian, Washington & Lee University

Looking back over notes I made during the last three months of travels, reading, and conversations with professors, librarians, IT people and administrators, I am most struck by the many marginal notes recording terms I needed to follow up on: stigmergy, warchalking, counter-mapping, bookmarklets, blogs, backlinking, semantic web, federated searching, Beowulf computing, information ecology, wikis.... Looking into each of these semantic novelties took an hour or a day, and several of them have led me to changes of personal direction. This sort of magpie discovery (the picking up of shiny things) has been a lifelong habit, but it wasn't until my just-completed fall term sabbatical that I thought to wonder why, and whither.

These terms are memes, words coined as labels for emergent realities, bits of action and experience that need names. We learn and use and spread memes, and in the process their referents often morph: the use to which we put an idea may not be what its initiator intended or anticipated. The same can be said for technologies: we invent and promulgate unanticipated uses as we unpack the implications of hardware or software or mechanisms. The history of technology is spangled with unintended consequences.

The last decade has presented us with a succession of technology-based surprises that turned out to have (or seem to have) implications for pedagogy, for support, for demands on campus resources: peer-to-peer computing (Napster and its successors), portal systems (Blackboard and its ilk), wireless access, streaming media, XML, Web services, Internet map servers, databases --the Web continues to deliver floods of opportunities, necessities, and challenges. All of these have in common the property of emergence: they are disruptive technologies (Wikipedia defines and exemplifies) which challenge orthodoxies, create new niches in established ecologies, and produce unexpected synergistic effects.

I want to discuss local and consortial perspectives on problems of emergence, and point you to some links and readings that I have found especially provocative.

The local conundrums
Three months of visits to college campuses and a lot of sabbatical reading lead me to a knot of questions:

There are no easy answers, and very few "best practices" to emulate. Each campus seems to have a few people whom others identify as visionaries and pioneers, but their niches are not predictable: sometimes they are professors, sometimes librarians, sometimes IT or computing people. Their penchant for experiment and innovation is often applied at the outer fringes of their nominal position or assignment. Some are lone wolves, but many pursue collaborations, often across administrative boundaries. They share a common problem: where can they turn for support for their efforts? As rogue operatives and boundary-traducers, innovators are often ineligible for resources within their administrative units, so they must either attract extraordinary support internally (from contingency funds or generous programs), or divert time into applications for external funding.

Another problem, common to colleges and universities, is that research and innovation have generally been considered to be the domain of the professorate; the work of support staff has been to support, to provide what professors need to teach and to carry out their research, to respond to demand. But the transformation now underway on campuses is centered in the information infrastructure: in how data and information and knowledge are managed and delivered. How students get information has changed in the last five years, as have the uses to which they must learn to put information. With few exceptions, professors and administrators are not active at the leading edges of these developments.

This is an exciting time to be at work on the frontiers of teaching and learning, and to be building the physical and virtual environments in which new modalities of teaching and learning can flourish and discover their futures. Our campus communities are just beginning to make the turn into using the computer as an active public communication tool, having established its centrality as a tool for private communication, for exploration, and for information retrieval. We teeter on the brink of productive use of the Web as a composition and distribution medium, in which text and images and data find new associations and eloquence. The question of whether, and how, an innovation will improve our abilities to carry out an institution's mission is always in the air, and demands clear answers.

The separate worlds of IT and the library are beginning to make common cause on many campuses, as computer labs evolve into Information Commons installations, libraries assume responsibility for management of campus digital assets and linkage to extramural digital library initiatives, and classrooms are wired to make use of digital media. On most campuses information technology datastructures have expanded dramatically in the last couple of years (with image databases, geographic information systems, and in-house management tools), and we are faced with the practical consequences of success with emergent technology: successful exploration and prototyping creates demand for production. Stable prototypes need to move from the hands of their developers (who are then freed to go on to the next thing) and be translated into infrastructure --to become part of the working background, taken for granted by users. The innovations must move from 'development' to 'production' servers, and organizational pathways to provide support for new applications need to be clear. A missing piece in many campus computing organizations is a person whose job it is to carry out this integration into the workaday infrastructure.

The big challenge, seen on every campus, is how to incorporate into already overburdened organizations the necessity to keep exploring and inventing. Rapidly-growing areas of an enterprise always need more resources, and moving existing people around is rarely an adequate response. Especially in information technologies, we have to recognize that we are working with MORE, that the whole enterprise is expanding. As we add more and more instructional technologies, we have to broaden the skill base of users, increase the overall level of support, and recognize that the necessary support stratifies: new users need help that early adopters have gone beyond, and early adopters develop new levels of sophistication in their support questions. Meanwhile, developers need to keep working on the growing edges of application and possibility.

Consortial Opportunities
The Digerati are a dispersed tribe, found on all campuses and recognized by burning zeal for the latest developments in emergent and disruptive technologies, many of which are viewed with suspicion --or at least with caution-- by their colleagues. These early adopters are tinkerers and evangelists. They can be found in many places on campuses, exploring innovations that have potentially transformative influence upon teaching and learning. They pay heed to conduits of information that others may not see the point of. They develop and exercise extramural links that are essential to their sanity and productivity, and that ensure a continual flow of inspiration. Individually, they often feel that they are working in a vacuum, that most of their colleagues don't understand their motivations or what they do. They (well, we) desperately need to be better connected to what's happening in similar institutions.

At the moment the tool of choice for interconnecting Digerati on different campuses is surely the blog --a meme which appeared quite recently and was selected by the American Dialect Society as one of the most favorite coinages (and "most likely to succeed") for the year 2002. A glance at Peter Suber's FOSblog shows blogging at its best and most portentious: while most of the posts are by owner Peter Suber and others are from contributors he has added, site logs indicate that readership extends to thousands of lurkers. Serendipitous use of Google and other search engines insures that new readers will find blog postings and be drawn into the conversation. A blog's greatest potential is as an agora for an emergent community of people working on a single something. This is the ideal medium for the propagation of memes, and the richness of hypertext links weaves a glorious macramé of interlinkages.

Broader conversations among potential collaborators are a necessity. The virtual communities and Web serendipities engendered by blogs expand our horizons, but face-to-face meetings remain an essential element in the sorts of information technology bootstrapping our campuses require, and are the special province of consortial technology centers. Sponsorship and coordination of workshops, course modules, shared applications on remote servers, and opportunities for travel to other campuses all have potential as partial solutions to the challenges posed by emergent and disruptive information technologies. Some of the support and development that all campuses need, but few can afford, can be constructed and delivered at the consortial level, but implementation requires the rethinking of campus information infrastructure.

The distinctive nature and accelerating scope of changes in information technologies affects every aspect of teaching and learning, reaching far beyond libraries and computing. At the eye of this hurricane are the means to manage and distribute information. The same forces are felt on all campuses: every constituency needs more resources to continue its core activities, and new opportunities for expansion appear at every turn. Decision makers must identify and support the most productive and synergetic of the competing voices. The best advice is to base organizational realignments and resource allocation decisions on continuing analysis of the sources and directions of change. These changes should themselves become the focus of research and discussion on and between campuses, in a conversation broadened to include staff and student perspectives and recognizing that visionaries and pioneers have a central role in exploration of innovations and possibilities.


The world of information access and information management is moving so fast as I write that I have been discovering new things with every sally into Webspace to see what others have to say about the subject of the moment. I continue to experiment with the means to track discoveries of this sort, for myself and for the interests of others. As I look back over my three months of sabbatical travels in New England (summarized in a set of interlinked pages). I note a number of books and Websites which I found especially provocative:


Web Resources