Library 2.0 talk enters backwardation
This is going to be my obnoxious post for the year, the kind of post I write periodically that leads to ugly Google results on my name. There are things that I sometimes need to say that I know a lot of people won’t like. Helps me maintain a sense of integrity, I guess.
Like a lot of people, the financial crisis has given me an interest in learning about finance and economics, and I have been learning some of the concepts of capitalism. One of the things I’ve learned about is the concept of a commodity – not in the Marxian sense but in the mainstream economic sense. Basically, a commodity is stuff that is bought and sold as stuff, regardless of where it came from. One barrel of light sweet crude oil is the same as another. It’s stored in tanks and mixed together with other barrels regardless of the source, and it trades based on its quantity. There are some standards that apply to a given commodity to ensure that the quality is within an acceptable range, and different grades of a commodity can be traded separately. But a barrel of light sweet crude is a barrel of light sweet crude, regardless of where it came from.
Lots of things are sold on commodities exchanges: orange juice, coffee, the famous pork bellies, palladium, copper, etc. Regarding something like coffee, where quality can definitely come into play, you have commodity coffee, specialty coffee, and boutique coffee. With boutique stuff it matters where it comes from, and one pound of it can be very different from another pound of it, depending on where it’s from, how it’s produced, etc. Boutique coffee is sold on the basis of information about its particular qualities, unlike commodities, which are expected to be “all the same.”
Commodities can be sold on the “spot market,” meaning, based on taking delivery of it right now for a certain price, or on the “futures market,” where what’s sold is a contract to take delivery of the commodity at some time in the future (three months, six months, etc.). Prices in futures markets are shaped by people’s estimates of future supply and demand, along with the cost of storage. When the price of futures contracts is higher than the spot price, you have “contango.” Where the price of futures contracts is lower than the spot price, the commodity is said to be “in backwardation.” I enjoy those words; I don’t know why.
If this is obnoxious to you already, just hang on.
What I’m getting at is that there is a kind of library talk that you can read on blogs and hear at conference presentations that seems to have the quality of a commodity. Library 2.0 talk has a commodity-like quality to it, as does a lot of other talk about technological change in libraries. You see the title of the presentation and you pretty much know what to expect, and people attend the presentation with a desire for some of that refreshing, predictable stuff (predictable and refreshing are not mutually exclusive qualities – think of orange juice). Occasionally you will hear or read something that stands on its own and has to be considered separately from other stuff – the boutique speaker or writer. But most of what you get is commodity-grade talk – ideas that you’re familiar with and have heard a dozen times.
It seems to me that demand for a lot of this stuff, the Library 2.0 talk, is beginning to decline, at the same time that supply seems to have surged, with everybody and her cousin a supplier. People are getting a little tired of it, and it has become so abundant that it is everywhere. It tends to stay around for a while, too, in the web environment. It might even be accurate to say that there was a commodity bubble in Library 2.0 talk.
This metaphor might be a little unfortunate, because it extends the word “boutique” to the kind of original, challenging, unexpected thought that I want to promote, and boutiques are still about shopping, still places to buy what are commodities in the Marxian sense. As a metaphor, it also has the problem of suggesting that that good ideas are expensive (because the advantage of commodities over boutique stuff is that it’s cheaper). The cost of original ideas is that they require a person to think new thoughts rather than rehash the old ones, and thinking is more like love than money, in that you’re richer the more you give.
I think what this idea is getting at though is the difference between information as a commodity, which in some circumstances it has become – undifferentiated stuff that sells in megabytes – and information as an umbrella category for ideas and expressions that have to be looked into for their uniqueness to be understood and valued for what they are. The key here is that “information” can be seen in its connection to the people who create it, who are subjects as well as objects, or it can be taken in an alienated sense, with the connection to individual speakers and writers severed. (That distinction is, I believe, the Marxian perspective.)
I think that our society makes it easy for us to regard ourselves and our own ideas as commodities, and this contributes to the commodity-quality of a lot of library 2.0 tech talk, by making it easy for people to say what they’ve heard others say and to go ahead and supply talk as a commodity rather than attempting to come to new insights.
I’m for new insights. An insight can’t be a commodity, can it? It’s too singular.