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Interview with Ted Nelson

New Scientist has an interesting series of articles about social networking, including articles by Bruce Sterling (I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Google) and Sherry Turkle (I’ll have to ask my friends).

My own favorite, though, is:

Nelson’s influence on the way we communicate goes back more that forty years to when he coined the term hypertext and envisioned his Xanadu project. I believe some of his comments on social networking sites can give us insights into how we think about digital government information.

For example, he says that how hypertext is used determines which linkages among sites and people and documents are easy, which are hard, and which are impossible. Anyone who has tried to link directly to documents buried in GPO Access knows that linking to government information can be very, very difficult. (If you haven’t looked lately, check out the page Help: Linking to Documents on GPO Access which begins with the disclaimer “Documents that exist within databases on GPO Access cannot be bookmarked.” Try creating “a unique URL string” and see if it works. If you’ve created links in the past, check to see if they still work. I did and about half worked and half didn’t. Ask yourself how many people will actually use this kind of linking? Will we someday see a better system when FDSys is online? At this point, we can only hope.)

Nelson also says that many social networking sites are “all about real estate. You set out your stall, stake out a territory….The whole World Wide Web is about a sense of ownership.” Nelson envisions something very different: “sharing media and acknowledging sources, without walls or boundaries.” Compare that to the GPO Vision of documents for sale. Look in vain for a vision of open-linking, DRM-free access, guarantees of free and fully functional information in the GPO vision and ask yourself whether it is more about “ownership” and control of information or sharing information without boundaries.

Finally, Nelson, touches on but does not explore an issue critical to democracy when he is asked about dynamic documents that are never out of date. The interviewer asks, “Does that mean documents are never finished?” and Nelson replies, “Finishing is a political act.” In the government information community we know this lesson well. Everyday we see how “finishing” a document and publishing it is often more of a political statement of how the government interprets information than it is a statement of objective fact. It is also, however, a tangible record that citizens can use to hold elected representatives and civil servants accountable. But how does “finishing” relate to information that is “never out of date” in the government information world? Will we, in the future, have a record of what we knew and when we knew it, of what the government said and when it said it? Or will we only have an ever-changing “never out of date” view of what the government says at the moment we ask for information? And, will GPO and OMB and government information policy facilitate government control of information or will information be free to use and re-use and redistribute?

FDLP Libraries can play an essential role in ensuring free, open access to government information, but government information specialists will have to insist on a vision very different from GPO’s if we are to make that vision happen.

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1 Comment

  1. dcornwall says:

    Thanks for pointing out this interview. You and Mr. Nelson make a great point about how it would be easy for a “never out of date” document to destroy the public record.

    Technically, FDSys does have a versioning system, althought I can’t remember whether previous versions are slated to be available to the public or just to GPO and the issuing agency.

    In many (though not all) cases, “superseded” documents are valuable in tracing governmental practices and policies. A case in point might be the US Army interrogation manual. With simply one electronic “always current” edition, we’d have no way of knowing what techniques were used or forbidden in the past. Thus neither Congress nor the American people would be able to make treatment decisions based on past experience.

    I hadn’t realized that even using the published linking guidelines that GPO Access links weren’t stable. That’s a tremendous loss of functionality and a great impediment to meaningful commentary to govdocs available through GPO Access.

    Of course, if such documents were made available to libraries using LOCKSS, they’d always be accessible at the original URL for at least as long as long as the document format could be read.

    Or if such documents were all loaded into the OCLC archive as the NM State Library is doing for fed docs of interest, that too would be directly accessible.

    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

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