|Photo by Debora Miller|
I watched the cult classic film Blade Runner again last night. It was fascinating to see what the future looked like from the perspective of 1982 and Ridley Scott’s fevered imagination. His vision of 2019 is a dark place—literally dark, with crowds moving through urban canyons in the rain. They speak a patois of Japanese, Spanish, German, and other languages, and there’s music playing in the background that sounds as if it may have come from India by way of the Middle East. Overhead, neon signs light up the night, with familiar Coca-Cola logos alternating with a giant Japanese woman who eats something over and over. Elsewhere, giant corporations wield power from buildings that look like a cross between Star Wars battleships and Mayan pyramids. “Replicants”—robots that look and act human—have been created to do the dirty work, but some of them are trying to pass as humans and are being hunted down as illegal aliens.
One of the curious things about Blade Runner and other films of the cyberpunk school is that the future looks strangely old-fashioned. Women’s hairstyles are reminiscent of the 1940s, men wear fedoras, and what light there is leaks through venetian blinds. Computer screens glow from first generation televisions and every other technological device seems to be from the era of typewriters, tickertape, and Dictaphones. The nostalgia infusing Blade Runner, both in the film noir cinematography and crumbling beaux arts buildings where much of the action takes place, is key to the thematic anxiety about where technology is heading. The future and the past coexist, but the past is ruined and the future is an optical illusion made of flashy advertising and robotic slaves with memory implants.
Android anxiety, electric sheep
All the things that worried us in the early 1980s found a place in this film—concern that Japan and Germany were growing richer and innovating faster than we were, worries that technology that was changing too fast might have unintended consequences, that our jobs were being outsourced, that our cities were overcrowded, dangerous, and falling apart.
The way we think about the future says a lot about what makes us nervous in the present, and the way we predict the future of libraries is an expression of our fears. How often are we told, in preface to an argument for change, that we are doomed? That if we fail to alter course, libraries will cease to exist? That prefatory tocsin of warning sounds exactly the same, even when the solutions proposed are opposite. To avoid certain doom, we should provide customers with immediate digital access to whatever they want delivered to their devices seamlessly. No, no! We need to turn our backs on intellectual property controlled by greedy corporations and instead support local DIY research, creativity, and open forms of publishing.
Utopia or dystopia?
We could envision a future for libraries in which technology has enabled us to share and create information in wonderfully creative and efficient ways, a world where we have established a harmonious agreement among all the people involved in research so that we can boldly go—oh, wait, this future looks like Star Trek. Maybe we could have holodecks and computers that understand our queries and we could all wear matching unattractive fleece outfits. The modernist militaristic aesthetic of Star Trek embraced the notion that society is perfectible; once we sorted out a few details, an enlightened federation could explore new worlds in ships named Enterprise. This is a world where things are remarkably uniform and orderly. It’s not our world.
I could just as easily imagine a cyberpunk library future where the books remain on the shelves, but are neglected and crumbling, where there’s a palpable divide between the promise of technology and ordinary people’s access to it, between the advertised benefits of all the great new things and the reality of scarcity. Funded libraries might support small well-lit islands of wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporations which look sort of like universities but which generate patents instead of sharable knowledge and where people outside those funded islands create things by hand and share old books furtively because unlicensed sharing is illegal.
To be honest, though, I expect that my library in 20 or 30 years won’t look all that different than the library of today or the library we had when Blade Runner was released. The fact is that my institution has had the same mission for over 100 years: to prepare undergraduates for their adult lives. Each year new ones show up, and they have to learn the same things. The tools change; they might, in fact, change completely during the four years those students spend with us, but learning how to use tools is incidental to the more important things they have to learn.
They need to know how to interpret new ideas critically. They need to be able to find things out. They need to learn how to sort through conflicting ideas and determine which will best help them understand complex issues. They need to figure out where their own ideas fit in and they need to gain confidence in their ability to make new knowledge.
In 1990 I interviewed students about their research process, and I did it again ten years later. The big surprise was that their process didn’t really change. The tools students used were different, and the amount of information they could access quickly increased enormously in that decade. But it didn’t really matter that they were using databases instead of printed indexes, that journal articles were digital rather than in print, that the Internet provided whole new ways to search. They still wrestled with turning a vague idea into a well-honed question. They still struggled to sift and organize what they found without losing sight of their purpose. They still struggled to find their own voice and gain confidence in their original ideas.
The things we have to do as librarians to provide learning opportunities for students and the faculty who teach them will change, but one thing won’t: every new student will need help figuring out how to take their place in the world of ideas.
I’m tempted to continue my retrospective film festival by watching another classic from the 1990s, The Big Lebowski. Like the Dude, I suspect libraries will abide.