Do professional associations matter anymore?

As part of my taking a fresh look at career options, I have been asking myself if it really matters what professional associations I belong to now. We are told repeatedly as young academics that membership of the right associations matters, helping you find a community, offering a conference venue or related publication venue, and so forth, which might be partly true but only partly.

As renewals have come up for a few, I’ve decided to let my membership lapse. I take a look at what the association claims as benefits for membership and then ask myself if I either receive or avail of said benefits, and if so, are they worth the price of admission? These days I am beginning to think the answers are negative.

Sure, as a former president of ASIST, I have a tie to the organization that is difficult to sever, and I know the challenges of even sustaining never mind growing membership. But over the last 15 years I maintained membership of more than half a dozen associations, at a cost of well over $1000 a year and I now question just how much value there is in this.

Not to pick on any one society but I’ve let my ALISE and SLA memberships elapse. The stated benefits of these organizations are not great: a mix of some I barely use (e.g. access to a limited scholarly journal, possibility of being considered for an award (as if!) or membership of a SIG) and those I’d never use (membership lists?). Yes, a discount on attendance at conferences, usually the equivalent of membership dues, offers a wash but if I don’t attend the conference there’s not much going for this either.

SLA claims to offer a bit more than most, to keep members ‘ahead of the learning curve’ and advance career options, but I can’t say i experienced too much of this, but then maybe that’s just me. When I told them upon receiving my reminders to renew that I found the cost-benefit ratio to be too small they just politely told me ‘thank you’ and that was it. Fair enough, what association has time to deal with such members when there’s committee meetings, resolutions to draft, learning curves to keep ahead of, and awards to hand out.

The real point though is just what can associations offer in this age? Yes, they’ll cling on as long as they are running financially viable conferences which they can price to encourage membership but this is hardly the purpose is it? Rather than hide behind cliched mission statements, repetitive presidential editorials about ‘excitement at developments in the field,’ associations need to renew their purposes and deliver value beyond the old formulaic benefits. In the information space, one might really think a group that pushes harder for greater educational quality might gain some traction. What a pity those claiming to do so seem to be distracted, shuffling task forces and committees in mundane attempts at survival.

Let’s treat information space like the environment

In my Follett Lecture at Dominican University this week I examined the true nature of our information space and introduced the argument of considering information space in the same manner we conceive of the environment. To this end, we recognize the information space in which the majority of the world resides (and all will reside in soon) to be a new ecology that should be shared and managed on a global level to serve humanity. While I realize there are many criticisms we can level against the way our species has managed the planet, there is little disagreement that the environment needs protection, monitoring and the application of standards on how we use it. Can we start to consider the world of information in the same way?

To do this does require our taking more control. Large corporations cannot continue to be allowed to act in the interests of profit over people. Regulations of the kind introduced for data privacy in Europe are a model that we would do well to apply more widely. Technology that plays purely on the natural cognitive tendency to react to movement, change and dopamine loops needs to be understood for what it is, and alternatives developed. And consumers need to make their dollars count by purchasing better, more human-centered products.

Yes, this will require a sea change in governmental regulation, a willingness on politicians’ part to take more than campaign gifts from Facebook, Google and the like, and a massive educational effort in digital literacy (in the truest sense of the term) but we need to start. Universities need to lead the way here and offer intellectual leadership in helping the world to understand the benefits and pitfalls of technology choices, to increase our understanding of how the information world is structured and shaped, and to help craft appropriate policies for managing this new ecology into the future. Most universities like to make bold claims about addressing big challenges, and among them the environment is nearly always listed. Well it’s time to treat our information space equivalently while there’s still time.

Interview with the Daily Texan about Facebook

The Texan asked me about the current Facebook leak and I gave them my honest assessment. They only reported a small part of our conversation, and you can read it here. What they left out were my comments about the so-called apologies and the PR spin put out by the Facebook leadership about ‘doing better’. We’ve heard this from Facebook for a decade. They always apologize after the fact and promise to do better. This is why we need proper regulation, business cannot be relied on self-police, money and profit always take priority. How many businesses have mission statements that speak in lofty terms about ‘adding value’ to the world, or ’empowering people to do more’  – it’s as if they are charities or educational institutions, not corporate profit seekers. Facebook’s mission is to ‘bring the world closer together’….right…I think they left off the but at the end that says ‘so that we can exploit these close connections for money’. We do realize that this is their real mission, right?

Of course, the latest scandal will have little impact other than embarrassing some folks, I doubt many people will give up using FB. When asked why, I liken social media and privacy loss to fast food. We know it’s not good for us but we eat it anyway. We also had to learn over many years that diet and nutrition have to be worked on….privacy is the same, it will take most people time to learn that personal information space needs to be nourished too, and it takes effort. Meanwhile the MacDonalds of the internet will keep pretending to be good for us.



Facebook a force for good?

As tech companies are increasingly exposed for their exploitative practices and willful abuse of users’ privacy rights, no doubt we’ll hear lots of apologies and suggestions for ‘how we will do it better’. Does anyone believe this? When you, the user, are the product, there is no really better way. Your data, your behavior, your interactions are the business and no amount of window-dressing or option boxes will change this.

But while all eyes now are on Facebook and the like, you can expect a few noises from Business schools and Engineering colleges about the need to teach ethics. Yeah right, more window-dressing by academic programs that have placed higher premiums on fundraising and PR than on doing the right thing. Education is becoming an extension of business and it’s getting harder and harder to break the profit drive.

The right to carry, and to forget

When you reduce multidimensional dynamics to a single variable, answers seem easier to find. Advocates of gun rights always ask if, when a gun is pointed at you, it would be better to have a gun of your own for self-defense or not? Well, of course it would, everything else held equal,….but I prefer to ask, why can anyone point a gun at me in the first place?

Now we’re told the FBI or other authorities should be responsible for making sure the mentally ill or disturbed among us should not have access to guns. Authorities receive many thousands of ‘tips’ every day about possibly dangerous people. Do we really want to live in a nation where every suspicion results in full investigation and suspension of rights? Leaving aside the costs of even managing this, how do free speech and openly expressed thoughts fit here? Am I under suspicion and liable to FBI-interrogation just for writing this?

This is all pertinent given the latest tragedy in Florida, but it’s exacerbated for me today when I learn that two gun-owners on my campus actually left their guns behind today, one in the restroom and the other in their college building. Yes, we all lost things and misplace our phones, our keys, or books. But I tend not to lose my car, my glasses, or anything else that I have to make an effort to own.  What does this say about guns and the easy right to carry them around campus?

UT agreed to allow concealed carry for permit holders, and postured publicly to justify the simple compliance with state law, even rewarding the chair of the complicity committee with a formal honor. Let’s see how the university treats those who can carry but can’t remember where their weapons are.


Viewed from within: how to cliche your way to relevance

I’m beginning to cringe at the constant push of designer-liness and experience-y hokum in multiple venues. While I am delighted our graduates are getting jobs with their education in HCI&D, the words of our speciality are being popularized into meaninglessness by those wishing to jump on the bandwagon.

A couple of years back I baulked first at everyone trying to be all “disruptive” and “entrepreneurial”. These terms became cliches as every university or business stuck the labels on and attempted to polish the same old crap they were pushing. I actually sat in university leadership meetings where people used these terms as if they somehow justified another committee delivering the same tired recommendations to adopt the technology of the day. (Side note, most digital ‘innovation’ in education has pathetically ignored the existing research base while claiming ‘this time’ it would really have impact).  Perish the sane folks who raised questions, I mean who wants to be labelled a resister or laggard when you can give the appearance of being hip and contemporary? Not many university administrators, apparently.

So here we are a few years on, still being urged to innovate, and now we are told the best way to do this is to adopt design thinking. Yeah, right….it’s allegedly a new form of ‘thinking’. Of course, those most urging it either have no experience in the domain in which they now urge change, or like some recently converted believers, have replaced rational thought with zeal. Hey, if industry wants designers, call yourself one and go for it.  You can dismiss existing knowledge and methods with a waive of your felt marker-carrying hand….Oh dear…I blame Steve Jobs.

How long before we have undergrad courses on ‘design thinking for pharmacists’?


Another ALA down

Chicago in June is a pretty good location for a conference, even if the basic quality of food in the downtown area belies the other impression of the city as a truly impressive cultural center. ALA in town means thousands of people hauling bags of free books and pens around the streets, less like plundering hordes than old sherpas, but that’s what some folks go for surely, all the goodies they can grab. Someone should ask the airlines if the weight of personal luggage shifts up significantly on return flights this week – in the age of big data, this should be easily established.

Yes, there were guest speakers…very expensive ones, typically designed to deliver reinforcing rather than challenging speeches, and the usual too many sessions to be easily navigated (my strategy of avoidance is the best source of cognitive comfort in such circumstances). What does bother me most is the real purpose of this gathering and the enormous expense involved. Over 20,000 attendees across all days adds up to significant revenue for some, and those attendees I spoke with seemed happy, as I am sure were the hotels and bars in Chicago given the crowds but as I reflect on the last few conferences I’ve attended, and this most recent ALA in particular, I do wonder what purpose is served by such gatherings?

I know people will argue that meeting is vital to the functioning of the association and that yes, it can be fun to meet up with folks, but who pays for this and who profits? Moreover, what is the point of endless council meetings which seem to spend an inordinate amount of time passing motions, often not particularly related to or informed by the practices of librarianship? When I ask practitioners, I am usually politely chided that academics either do not understand or ‘should’ attend to show support. But what is it that we are supposed to be supporting? ALA always makes grand statements of intent, mission, vision, advocacy etc but what does it really achieve? And I’m not just picking on ALA, though it is a big, fat, easy target. I could say the same of most association meetings. At scholarly conferences we argue that we are sharing research, but to be honest, some venues are not even good at serving this function. But why ALA? We are facing a near crisis of fake news, loss of faith in rationality and the commercialization of access to information, but it’s hard to see much urgency in the response of professional organizations. Oh nevermind, an sure Hilary will make us all feel a bit better about it.