The Hilarys! My nominations (part 1)

As I settle into my first paid archives/records management role (and get used to the joys of a regular two and a half hour commute to glamorous Shoeburyness), I am making an effort to find time for both networking and wider thinking about my newly chosen profession. To that end I went along to my first Cardigan Continuum gathering at UCL the other week to enjoy some biscuits and archives conversation!

Jenny Bunn has written a note of the discussion but, in brief, the main outcome was the suggestion of two new annual awards for the article/book/blog and the event/new development from ‘the outside world’ (yes, I know, it’s a scary concept!) which, with archives in mind, we have found most intriguing, useful, inspiring etc. It was self-evident that the awards should be known as the Hilarys. I guess if the rest of the English-speaking world wants in, they could set up their own version called the Schellies.

Having been there at the inception of this bold venture, it would be pretty shabby if I didn’t make my own nominations, so here goes. There are two award categories; in this post I’m going to cover the first of them:

Most thought-provoking encounter

The idea, article, book, news story, technology or whatever from outside the field of archives and records management that has had the most impact in making you think about what you do in a different way this year

I have three nominations for this:

First nomination:
The Information: A History; A Theory; A Flood by James Gleick

I was a bit slow to this: it came out in 2011 and in 2012 it was the winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. But I got there in the end and read this in spare moments during my Archives and Records Management MA. It’s telling that, although it’s a hefty and occasionally demanding read, it was sufficiently compelling that I rattled through it even while I was pushed for time with MA study:

Here’s the blurb:

James Gleick, the author of the bestsellers ‘Chaos’ and ‘Genius’, brings us his crowning work: a revelatory chronicle that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality – the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

We live in the information age. But every era of history has had its own information revolution: the invention of writing, the composition of dictionaries, the creation of the charts that made navigation possible, the discovery of the electronic signal, the cracking of the genetic code. 

In ‘The Information’ James Gleick tells the story of how human beings use, transmit and keep what they know. From African talking drums to Wikipedia, from Morse code to the ‘bit’, it is a fascinating account of the modern age’s defining idea and a brilliant exploration of how information has revolutionised our lives.

That summary in no way does the book justice. It covers a vast subject – information, its storage and transmission – serving as a history of information technology and a primer on the related scientific and cultural theory and consequences. Plato, Aristotle, John of Salisbury, Hobbes, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, Kurt Godel, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Marshall McLuhan, Derrida, Richard Dawkins and Tim Berners-Lee all get walk-on roles.

To take just one of the relevant ideas explored, Gleick covers the concept of the alphabet, its ordering and the consequences for indexing. He includes this charming quotation from Elizabethan dictionary pioneer Robert Cawdrey which seeks to explain precisely how readers should go about using his book:

Gentle reader, thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where every Letter standeth: as b neere the beginning, n about the middest, and t toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with a then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with v looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with ca looke in the beginning of the letter c but if with cu then look toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.

It is eye-opening to be reminded that such a system of organising information is not inherent but had to be invented. And while it is now entirely natural and obvious to us, it was not always so. After all ‘it forces the user to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings; to focus abstractly on the configuration of the word.’ Once learned though it is, as Gleick says, astoundingly efficient: ‘A person who understands alphabetical order homes in on any one item in a list of a thousand or a million, unerringly, with perfect confidence. And without knowing anything about the meaning.’

Information is of course not the same thing as records, but it’s my belief that archivists and records managers should have at least a basic grounding in information theory. This gives that in spades and provides much for those in our profession to chew on, while also being a hugely enjoyable read.

Second nomination:
The Last Days of Aaron Swartz, posted by Myron Groover on his blog Bibliocracy on 13th January 2013

Many readers will be aware that early 2013 saw the suicide of internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz had become wealthy young through his role in the early development of Reddit and had also become passionate about the importance of making information, knowledge and records freely available through the internet. At the time of his death, we was being prosecuted by the FBI for using his access to the IT systems of MIT to download and then make publicly available tens of thousands of academic journal articles held behind the subscriber paywall of the publisher JSTOR (he had previously carried out a similar guerrilla exercise with US courts records, which were notionally in the public domain but which still required payment to view them online).

Myron Groover’s post was partly an obituary of Swartz and a summary of some of the broader battlefields around transparency, freedom of information and open access.

But he then goes on to make the link between these issues and the work of librarians and archivists who, he says, have ‘been deafeningly silent on a number of absolutely crucial measures under debate which adversely affect the informational rights of our users.’

He urges that we ‘take a stand on political issues affecting access to information, literacy, intellectual freedom, and educationDon’t rely on tried-and-true cop-outs like “this doesn’t affect my work” or “I can’t see how I can make a difference”. High level information policy decisions affect all of us – as citizens, scholars, and human beings…. silence is acquiescence at best and endorsement at worst.’

It’s an important link to make, and has certainly made me think about the personal stake I hold, and what contribution I might be able to offer.

Third nomination:
The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

My final nomination is a work of fiction, which came to my attention after I saw the short film ‘Dr Easy’ starring Tom Hollander and Geraldine James, which is based on the first chapter of the novel. If nothing else, watch the film – it’s only ten minutes long, well made and has a powerful punch. I gather a full-length film of the book is now in the works.

Again, here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Nelson used to be a radical journalist, but now he works for Monad, one of the world’s leading corporations. Monad make the Dr Easys, the androids which patrol London’s streets: assisting police, easing tensions, calming the populace. But Monad also makes the Red Men – tireless, intelligent, creative and entirely virtual corporate workers – and it’s looking to expand the programme. So Nelson is put in charge of Redtown: a virtual city, inhabited by copies of real people going about their daily business, in which new policies, diseases and disasters can be studied in perfect simulation. Nelson finds himself at the helm of a grand project whose goals appear increasingly authoritarian and potentially catastrophic. As the boundaries between Redtown and the real world become ever more brittle, and revolutionary factions begin to align themselves against the Red Men, Nelson finds himself forced to choose sides: Monad or his family, the corporation or the community, the real or the virtual.

‘The Red Men’ is at heart a novel about a character wrestling with his conscience, set against a pervasive and Orwellian vision of contemporary society: surveillance, automation, biotechnology, and their implications for our humanity.

Although it’s speculative fiction, it’s set in the very, very near future and parts of it have a compelling – and sometimes horrifying – plausibility.

One of the book’s key concepts is that a sufficiently powerful and developed artificial intelligence, given access to enough detail about the behavioral patterns, financial transactions, writings, social networks and personal history of a given individual (all of which are, of course, types of record), could produce a reasonably accurate simulation of them. Similar ground was covered by the episode of Charlie Brooker’s Channel 4 series ‘Black Mirror’ earlier this year. But while in that drama, the simulation was used to help a widow come to terms with the loss of her husband (by allowing her to interact with a copy of him!), here the ‘Red Men’ are used by companies to get more productivity out of their staff, and by governments to trial social policy.

While this idea might be fanciful, in some respects it is not far from where we are now. We are leaving ever more detailed digital trails as we go through our daily life. The ability of computer systems to parse and mine vast collections of data to find patterns and make predictions is increasingly exponentially. And we’ve already seen, via the Snowden leaks, how the intelligence services are beginning to be able to link these trends to identify and profile potential terrorists.

‘The Red Men’ is far from a perfect novel (it’s Matthew De Abaitua’s first, and I think that shows) but it is definitely worth a read.

Part 2 to follow

In the second part of this post, which should follow in the next week or so, I will give my nominations for ‘Best Newcomer’ -a  development from outside the field that has occurred in 2013 that you think is most worth keeping an eye on.


One comment

  1. […] Myron Groover entitled ‘The Last Days of Aaron Swartz’. I’m proud to say that it was my nomination. It is worth repeating a key section of Groover’s post. Referring to the suicide of internet and […]

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