SLA Europe meeting

SLA Europe Blog  Report on a meeting last November…

As information professionals, we are at the forefront of a revolution that is visibly changing the world around us. The information revolution is proving as game-changing as the original industrial revolution.

As the topic of the SLA Europe meeting was “Fake Histories of Information Risk” I was expecting to learn how librarians and information professionals can cope with their organisation’s risk profile. But the scope of this talk was far broader and much more exciting. The speaker, Robin Smith, looked at the way people have considered the potential of the information technology revolution – the dreams, hopes and myths. And then he compared and contrasted this with the reality, with the significant advances in information power balanced against the potential risks. The speaker presented us with the sweep of history to give us a sense of where we have come from. He took us from the 1948 ideals of freedom to the hopes of people in the mid twentieth century, when early observers of computers and robot technology believed they would provide the potential for humans to become forever free from mundane toil.

For our current situation, he used the year 2008 as an illustration of the dangers we may face. One of his slides included the memorable but ironic pun: ‘The Greatest Hits of 2008: Economy, Ethics and Energy’.

Looking at the economy, the speaker firmly placed the Banking Crisis of that year as flowing from information and technology changes. The large banks failed to recognise the risks but also conceal them from the regulators. He spoke in no uncertain terms about a great swindle powered by the new information technology that the world economy is still suffering the consequences of now.

That same year saw a major setback for our confidence in the ready availability of energy for our energy hungry societies. The electricity supply failed for 17 hours when California was blacked out in the richest country in the world. It has been outdone since by the 72 day outage in India, one of the countries challenging the hegemony of the west in economic power. And before we become complacent – are we confident that we have a clear sustainable energy policy here in the UK that could cope with unexpected challenges?

Thirdly he gave some chilling statistics for cyber hacking, such as 219 records breached in 2008. That figure now is probably four times as large. The terrorist attack on Georgia back in 2008 was not about lone terrorists but showed that there could be national support for the activity of bringing down another nation’s sites and systems. Since then there have been other examples of secret attacks on states, some of which were clearly sponsored by rival nations. These have been written about – but there may be so much more cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism that we do not hear about.

To bring us bang up to date, X gave us some thought-provoking ideas to consider. Facebook and Google are not charities and the Cloud is not a risk-free way to cut costs. We laughed when we heard predictions made in the past, such as the IT equipment boss who said authoritatively: ‘There is no way anyone would need a computer in their home’. But our future predictions are likely to be equally wrong. We have no way of predicting what new social media will appear next and what new risks this will introduce. We need to be mindful of the possibilities so we have timely responses when new risks occur.

Although the message was serious, the evening was not solemn. We were treated to fabulous visuals and video clips, including a tour of Google that was a reminder that behind the magic of the familiar front-end is an industry keeping the show on the road. We also enjoyed a view such novelties as a ‘cockroach directed robot’ from the early days of these new technologies – surely this is something that only SLA Europe has to offer!

In this way, the speech brought to life both the adventures and the risks of our revolutionary time. The speaker included a plea for us, as information professionals to recognise the risks and to make sure we did not succumb to the hope that information technology – humans working with machines to end the need for routine work – is somehow progressing smoothly to a mythical nirvana. We are the people who can shape the future of this revolution and we should be mindful of the tightrope that we may be crossing. For the future, knowledge alone is not power. Sharing knowledge is power and we have to recast our message to make sure the world enjoys the benefits without an ostrich-like refusal to grasp the risks this entails.

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